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A Visual History of OmniFocus for Mac

The Omni Group has been around for 25 years.

Founded in 1989 as a technology consulting firm, they used to build custom software for NextSTEP users until Apple bought NeXT in 1997. Now Omni builds and sells their own software for OS X and iOS. Not least of which is OmniFocus.

But did you know OmniFocus for Mac was somewhat built by chance?

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that sat on top of a single OmniOutliner document with some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application…

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup of what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007. At that time they also began pre-selling licenses and OmniFocus pre-sold over 2,500 copies in the first 5 days of the public beta.1

Finally, on January 8, 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was launched.2

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

Here’s the latest public version of OmniFocus (version 1.10):

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.8

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2010. You could say that OmniFocus 2 is kGTD 2.

But all that changed with the beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

On February 1, 2013 the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

Last year, during the testing window, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but just kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’ve been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating the previous OmniFocus beta.

However, earlier this week, Omni Group re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a significantly updated design.

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac (circa March 2014)

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

There are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles (a cue from the iPhone app). Additionally, the whole task hierarchy now has a clear structure that flows from left to right.

On the left-most side are the tabs for different views, then in the next column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab, next to that is the main task list displaying the tasks for the project, context, or date selected, and then on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can fine-tune metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Aside from the right-hand alignment of the new checkcircles, I think every one of the changes in this newest OmniFocus beta is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years.

The new beta version of OmniFocus for Mac feels peaceful to me. It’s open, clean, organized, and logical. I like it.


  1. Contrast that against today’s public beta which has 30,000 users on the list.
  2. It seems like OmniFocus has been around for ages, but it’s actually younger than the iPhone.

Dumb

The more I read about smartwatches, the more I appreciate my “dumb” watches.

Analog Watches

These are the two watches I wear. The one on the left is a Tissot, and the one on the right a Seiko automatic. Most days I wear the Seiko.

Here is an exhaustive rundown of all the functionality of my watches: They tell the time of day (albeit they’re imprecise, and usually off by half a minute or so) and the date. The Seiko, being fancy, also tells the day of the week. And since neither watch knows what month it is, a few times per year I have to adjust the date forward from “29″ or “31″ to “1″.

That’s it.

But I don’t just wear a watch to know what time it is. Part of the reason I wear one is as an excuse not to pull out my iPhone.

So often I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and I’d pull out my iPhone to see what time it was. Then, out of sheer habit, I’d swipe to unlock and the next thing you know I’m mindlessly scrolling through tweets or reading emails without actually acting on them. Then the line would move, I’d put the iPhone back in my pocket, and if you’d asked me what time it was I couldn’t even tell you.

My analog watches are my reminder that utility exists apart from an internet connection and usefulness doesn’t require the latest software.

My watches don’t have an interactive touch display. Nor do they have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LTE, or USB. Heck, the Seiko doesn’t even have a battery — if I don’t wear it for a day or two then it stops working until I wind it again.

There are no apps for my watches. I can’t pair them with my iPhone, can’t give them voice commands, can’t get directions from them, nor can I use them to change my music to the next track.

On the flip side, my watches don’t require updates, and they won’t be “slow and outdated” in one year’s time after the next version comes out. In fact, they will never grow outdated and irrelevant unless they break altogether.

In 15 or 20 years my sons will hopefully think it’s special when I pass down one of my old watches to them.

That’s not to say vintage technology isn’t special. But an old watch is simultaneously special and usable. In 20 years my original iPhone, as special and nostalgic as it will be, probably won’t even power on.

My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.

When I look down at my watch I know exactly what it will show me: the time.

Checkmark 2

Here is a huge update to my favorite location-based reminders app, Checkmark.

In addition to location-based reminders, Checkmark 2 now supports scheduled and repeating reminders as well as a general project/list section. So not only is Checkmark the best app for location-based reminders, but it now aims to be your one-stop shop for all tasks and reminders, regardless of when, where, or what they are for.

I’m still deep into OmniFocus for my general to-do list, and I usually use Siri or Fantastical for setting time-based reminders. But the location-centric stuff in Checkmark is the best there is, and now it’s even better than before.

The big update with how Checkmark handles the location-based reminders is that you can now create location groups. Hooray!

Now, I don’t know about you, but my wife and I don’t shop at just one grocery store all the time; we shop at like six. In Checkmark 2, I created a location group with all the grocery stores we shop at. Then, no matter which of those stores I show up to, Checkmark will remind me of any items I’ve added to that group. (Gosh would I love to see shared reminders with this.)

Here’s how you create a group:

  • You start out just like you would create a location.
  • From the “Where” section, tap the plus button and name your location (example: “Grocery Stores” / “Hardware Stores” / “Ice Cream Shops”).
  • Next tap “Add from map” to search for the places you want to add (or Add from location if you’re at the place you want to add).
  • Once you’ve found one of the locations and the pin for it has dropped, then tap into the search box again to search for the next place you want to add.
  • Once you’ve got all the pins for that group dropped, then tap “Done”
  • Select your icon and tap Done again.

Now you have a location group and you are on your way to being the the master of never forgetting to check out this season’s sink selection next time you go to the hardware store to buy charcoal for your grill.

You can add or remove locations from a group by tapping into that group, tapping the settings gear icon in the upper-right corner, and then editing the location. I have found creating and editing groups to be a little bit finicky at times. But once a group is created, then your golden.

In addition to the awesomeness of the new groups feature, Checkmark is still faster than using any other app for adding a location-based reminder (even for specific spots, not groups). And, most importantly, Checkmark is incredibly reliable for triggering upon the arrival / departure of a location.

My one quibble with Checkmark is it’s assumption that time-based reminders are the most important. When launching Checkmark, it opens to wherever you last were in the app. If however, the app has been cleared from memory since the last time you launched it, or if you’ve restarted your iPhone, then Checkmark’s default landing screen is the “When” section. And currently there’s no way to change this setting. Which oftentimes means creating a new location-based reminder requires two additional taps: one to open the basement menu and one to tap the “Where” tab. But this is a minor quibble, and I’ve heard it may be resolved in a future update to the app.

I’ve long been a user and a fan of Checkmark because I think it handles location-based reminders better than any other app out there, including Apple’s own Reminders app. You can snag Checkmark 2 in the App Store for just $3.

Reporter, Day One, and Launch Center Pro

About five weeks ago, on February 6th to be exact, Nicholas Felton’s Reporter app shipped.

The whole gist of the app is to give yourself a pretty good idea of how you spend your time, where you spend your time, and who you spend it with. I set up Reporter to ask me 11 questions related to where I was, who I was with, my outfit, if I was eating/drinking anything, my mood and general feeling of productivity for the day, the tools I was using at the time, and what the last app I had launched was.

My first report was logged on at 9:49am on Thursday morning, February 6. My last report at 1:04pm on Monday morning, February 17. I only used the app for 12 days. As much as I loved the idea of Reporter, the multiple interruptions throughout my day weren’t worth the aggregate data I was collecting.

From the 12 days I used the app, I learned that 92-percent of the time I was feeling productive with my day and 98-percent of the time I was in a happy mood. Most of my outfits consisted of pants, slippers, and a sweater (Polar Vortex, remember?); only once did I wear a hat and only once did I get prompted for a report while in my underwear. I mostly drank water. My most commonly-used tools were my Mac and my Clicky Keyboard. A little over half the time I was working; the vast majority of my time was spent at home; most of the time I was alone, but when I was with someone it was usually my oldest son, Noah.

One interesting-slash-revealing fact I learned was regarding the apps I was launching on my iPhone. Reporter would ask me what app I had previously launched. I answered this by double-tapping my Home button to bring up the multitasking card view just enough to see what app was next in line. The most common app I found there was Threes game, with Email in second place, and then Tweetbot. Hmm.

Is this the truth revealing itself? Perhaps. But perhaps not. As I pontificated on one of my Shawn Today podcast episodes a few weeks ago when talking about this same topic, I recall being much more likely to fill out the Reporter report if I was already doing something non-trivial on my iPhone or if I was not in the company of others.

I often would ignore the reports when I was in the middle of reading, or writing, or when I was with other people (especially when I was with Anna). So it’s hard to say just how accurate these reports reflect my life, let alone the 12-day segment.

In the end, I stopped using Reporter because, as I mentioned above, the frequent interruptions were not worth the aggregate data they were generating.

But I’ve found another way to help automate the “reporting” process using some apps that I already have in my iOS tool belt: Launch Center Pro and Day One.

I came across these Launch Center Pro actions that Josiah Wiebe cooked up, and I think they’re very clever. Josiah has put together a handful of customized Launch Center Pro actions for the purpose of logging meals, drinks, books, films, and more. Using the actions in Launch Center Pro basically enables you to answer a few questions (some of which can even be multiple-choice) and then auto-insert those answers into Day One in a nicely formatted layout.

For example, here’s my Coffee Log entry from yesterday morning’s brew.

I also installed several of Josiah’s actions into my Launch Center Pro, and for the past ten days I’ve been using the coffee log and the daily summary. Though, I tweaked his actions slightly to build versions that are more suited to my own needs and layout preferences.

For example, since I almost always get my coffee from one of two local roasters — Parisi or Broadway (if I didn’t roast it myself) — I changed my Coffee Log action to offer the Roaster as a multiple choice option. And for my Daily Summary action, I set up a reminder in Launch Center Pro to ping me each evening.

Since Day One already is grabbing my location, weather, steps taken, and I can add a photo if I like (a selfie, perhaps?), I find these daily summaries to be an excellent compromise when compared to the more-detailed, but more frequent logging of Reporter.

However, it’s not a perfect system. For one, I miss is the way Reporter auto-populated certain answers making it easy to answer the same thing again. In LCP, if I am entering in the same answer to the same question on a regular basis I either have to type that answer in manually, or decide if I want to limit my answers to a pre-defined multiple choice list. There is no option (that I know of) to offer a multiple-choice prompt that can be converted into a text entry prompt on the fly.

And, now that I’m entering in more and more entries which use markdown-based tables and header tags, my Day One timeline view is not so pretty any more. Because Day One shows the raw markdown in its “timeline” view. I mentioned this to Paul Mayne on Twitter, however, and he said it’s something they’d like to add to the 2.0 update of Day One.

Speaking of potential future updates to Day One, I think it’d be great to see this sort of “guided/automated logging” built into Day One. The app already offers reminders that remind you to write in your journal, but sometimes that wide-open blank page is just too intimidating. Having specific questions can not only lead to more frequent journaling/logging, but when you’re answering the same ones over and over, though it may feel silly in the moment, over time it paints a picture about our lives that when we look back at it, we are reminded of who we were and who we are.

That’s why I’m personally quite the advocate for daily journaling. Because little things, day by day, usually don’t seem like much in the moment, but over the course of months and years, we are changing and maturing as individuals and it can be so valuable and downright encouraging to be able to look back and see that change.

Or, in the words of Kayli Stollak: “All you need is a sentence, a word, a thought, and suddenly you remember who you actually were.”

This Is a Review of Day One’s New Publish Feature

Day One Publish

In a nut, the new Publish feature in Day One is a way to share your thoughts and memories with your closest friends and family or with the whole world.

Publish lets you selectively upload Day One entries to the Web, and from there you can share the URL with whomever you like.

For example, here is an entry in my Day One journal about my recent excursions at a local coworking space. And here’s another entry with a rating/review of this morning’s cup of coffee.

As of this review, you can only publish an entry via the iPhone app, though there’s a soon-coming update for iPad that will allow publishing. Meanwhile, the Mac app has been updated to support the new custom Publish metadata (such as views on an entry, retweets, etc.), but an update to the Mac version that allows you to publish entries won’t be available until later this year.

To publish an entry from your iPhone, start by creating an entry (or going to one that you’ve already made) in Day One. Then tap the little ribbon-bookmark icon in the bottom left corner (that’s the Publish icon). If it’s your first time you’ll be prompted to create an account, and then you can publish that entry to the Web.

Before publishing, you get control over if that entry is auto-posted to your Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare account. You also get to choose if the location of that entry is shared.

Once you’ve published an entry, the Day One app will show you stats about how many people have viewed that entry and how many liked, faved, or RTed your tweet / Facebook status update about that journal entry. And Published entries are quickly identified within your Day One app’s timeline view because of their blue date instead of black. Moreover, you can update a published entry and/or remove it from being published.

You don’t have to share your published entries with your legions of social network followers. You see, people can only get to entries that they have the direct link to. So, say, for example, you publish two entries: one you share with all of your twitter followers and the other you share with just your family. Well, neither group will ever come across a link that would send them on to the other entry you published.

Day One Publish is not like a blog where links to other entries are auto-generated and once you come across one you can find all the others. No, each published entry is an island.

I asked Paul Mayne, the man behind Day One, to share a bit more about just how private / non-discoverable published entries are and why there is not an option for password protecting them. Paul wrote to me in an email, saying:

By default, published entries are hidden from search engines and visible only to anyone you give the URL. Of course, if you are sharing to a public feed on Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare, the URL will be indexed and searchable.

We feel our current approach is a solid solution to share entries semi-privately with close friends and family. Also, we’re planning to add an option to easily share published entries via email in a future update.

I’m satisfied with how Day One handles the privacy of each entry. I’m obviously never going to publish anything that is so sensitive or personal that I wouldn’t want just anybody to come across it. If and when there are certain journal entries that I don’t want to be online at all but that I do want to share with close friends or family, it’s quite easy to just email those entries from within the Day One app.

After using Day One’s Publish feature for the past two weeks, I think it’s cool on a couple of levels.

For one, Publish gives you the chance to share moments you want to share. And thus, it actually gives a bit of “social motivation” to enter things into Day One. The truth is, we like to share thoughts, photos, quotes, and musings with the world, but a lot of times we also want to save those moments for later. Publish is a classy way for us to create journal entries in our own personal journal, but then, with the tap of a button, we can share those entries with whomever we want — even the whole world.

Secondly, with Publish, the Day One team also wins because when people share their Published entries they are, in a sense, advertising for Day One. They’re providing an awesome service to current users that will, in term, generate new users, and therefore make the app’s development more sustainable and profitable.

This brings me to another question I asked Paul, regarding the cost of Publish and if it would be free forever. He replied that the current offering is free, but they are looking into additional premium features in the future.

Also, Paul wrote to me saying: “We’re currently hard at work on Day One 2.0. A cool feature with it will be current and historical activity feeds as starting points for creating and adding entries to Day One. We are [also] working towards enabling more web-based Publish and Day One features.”

* * *

The whole point of a journal (digital or analog) is to chronicle as much of our life as we are willing. I’ve been using Day One for a couple of years now, and the more I use it, the more I get ideas for how to use it better.

The guys at Day One say that Publish has been a side-project of theirs since the very beginning and is the start of “an exciting 2014 for Day One.” In my short time with Publish, I’ve found that it has a surprisingly ancillary effect of encouraging the journaling process just a little bit more. I still consider Day One to be the best journaling app out there, and if this is just the start of what they’ve got in store for updates coming this year, then I’m excited to see what’s next.

You can get Day One for iPhone + iPad here and the Mac version here. Although, right now you can only use the Publish feature from the iPhone version of the app.

Talking About iPads and Real Work

The always astute, Lukas Mathis, wrote a fantastic article about why he switched from an iPad to a Microsoft Surface so he could finally do “real work” using a tablet:

In general, I really love the Surface, and I use it much more, and for many more things, than I ever used any iPad I ever owned.

His thoughts on doing productive tasks with an iPad, and his review of Windows 8 — in which he clearly articulates the good, bad, and horrible — is all just excellent.

There are folks who are tiring of this whole racket around if we can or can’t use the iPad for real work. But I’m not tired of this topic at all.

The way I see it, being part of this ongoing conversation about “using the iPad for real work” is sort of like sitting in the front row and watching the personal and mobile computer landscape shift right before our eyes.

To quote Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

As amazing as mobile and personal computing is today, it is still in its infancy. The iPad is only a few years old, and think of how far it has come already. Twenty years from now, the average PC will probably be much more like a tablet (or a cell phone) and much less like a laptop/desktop. When my oldest son starts his freshman semester in the fall of 2030, I doubt we’ll be weighing the pros and cons of the iPad’s ability to do real work.

One day, as Lukas himself points out in his article, it won’t be newsworthy when someone does something creatively productive on their iPad:

If it was normal for people to use their iPads for creative tasks, there would not be newspaper articles about people using their iPads for creative tasks. The iPad will have arrived as a productivity device when news sites stop reporting about people who use iPads for productivity. So in the end, all of these links to articles about people who use their iPads to create things only seem to support the notion that this is not how most people use their iPads.

He’s right. Most people probably use their iPads for reading, surfing the web, light email, and checking Facebook and Twitter. And that’s fine.

But then there are apps like Drafts, Diet Coda, PDF Expert 5, Launch Center Pro, Editorial, and so many others (plus all the equivalent Windows 8 apps that I have no idea what they are) which are pushing mobile computing forward in small steps.

And those who are using these apps are also influencing the future of mobile computing. Because, and maybe I’m being grandiose, but I think those who are doing “real work” from their iPhone and iPad, are, in a small way, helping steer the direction of the personal computer.

Regarding the Olympus 25/1.8 Lens and the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4

There are now two nifty fifty lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system: the infamous Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 and the new Olympus 25mm f/1.8.

Some of the initial comparison reviews of the Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens are in and they’re not what I expected them to be. It seems the choice between either the Panasonic or the Olympus lens isn’t an obvious one.

The Panasonic 25/1.4 is my favorite lens for M43. And it’s not just me — this lens has long been heralded as one of the finest pieces of M43 glass you can get.

However, as you may recall, when I bought my E-PL5 in the fall of 2012, I went with the 20/1.7 pancake lens as my daily shooter. For me, the size was a very important factor and at the time I didn’t want to have both the 20mm pancake lens and the 25mm.

But, after renting the 25/1.4 for the second time this past Christmas, I decided to just buy the thing (along with the new E-M10).

What I like about the 25/1.4 is that it has a much faster auto-focus than my 20/1.7 pancake lens1 and produces a more shallow depth of field with creamier bokeh. Also, the 25/1.4 has a distinct character to it — not only is it a handsome and well-built lens, it takes great shots that have a contrast and look to them which I think is great.

Then, Olympus came out with their own 25mm lens: the 25/1.8. Ugh.2 The Olympus lens comes in black, it is $130 cheaper than the Panasonic 25/1.4 lens ($399 and $529 respectively), and it’s a bit smaller. Anyway, I decided to stick with my Panasonic lens because it is about 2/3 of a stop faster (f/1.4 vs f/1.8).

A few comparison reviews have now started rolling in, and it looks like the Olympus lens is almost as great as the Panasonic.

If you check out Robin Wong’s side-by-side comparison shots, the difference between the two lenses is not as distinct as I would have expected. The images from the Olympus lens look great and have a character all their own, even when set side-by-side with the Panasonic lens.

Though I will say that I prefer the images from the Panasonic. Also I think the Panasonic is a better looking lens on the camera itself — as awesome as the Olympus lenses are, they are also, unfortunately, kinda ugly.

But that’s not the whole story. The Olympus lens has better corner-to-corner sharpness and its auto focus speed is even faster and quieter to that of the Panasonic.

And so the big question is this: is the extra cost and extra size of the Panasonic lens worth it? Well, Steve Huff says no:

The Panasonic is slightly sharper here but not by much at all. To me, the benefits of the Olympus ($129 less, smaller, faster AF, silent focus, more neutral color) beat out that small miniscule [sic] sharpness difference.

A year and a half ago, when I originally decided to go with the Micro Four Thirds system, my decision was predominantly influenced by the lens selection. Though mirrorless cameras have all come a long way since then, the M43 system continues to have one of the more impressive and affordable lineups of awesome lenses and compact bodes.

While I won’t be trading in my Panasonic lens for the new Olympus, for those who’ve been holding out on the former and waiting for the latter, it looks like it was worth the wait.


  1. The 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens does have notoriously slow auto focus. I’ve talked with people who have experience with nearly every single M43 lens, and the 20/1.7 has the slowest AF of them all.
  2. The worst thing about being into photography is also the best thing: there are so many darn choices for amazing gear!

The 2014 Membership Drive and Giveaway

Yes! Welcome to the Fourth Annual Membership Drive and Giveaway. Everyone loves winning free stuff and I love giving it away.

Yesterday I kicked off this year’s membership drive with a heartfelt note. If you haven’t yet read it, please take a minute to do so. The annual membership drive kickoff note is one of the most difficult things I write all year. It’s important to me that I get the words just right to communicate just how grateful I am for the support of all the subscribing members.

Many of you have read yesterday’s article already, and to all of you who have signed up for a new membership in the past 24 hours: thank you! But it’s not just about encouraging new members to sign up. It’s also about reminding current members just how valuable their ongoing support really is. And so, to all the current members who continue to keep their membership active: thank you. And, of course, to those about to join: thank you, too.

I could not be writing here full-time without the generous support of the members. It means the world to me that readers are directly supporting the work I do here.

Ideally, you are signing up to become a member because the value and enjoyment you get from shawnblanc.net is worth it to you, and the members-only perks are a nice bonus of course. But my job is to try and sweeten the deal as much as possible. And so, I’ve put together some things to be won if you sign up to become a member.

For those of you who have not yet signed up to be a member, there is, as they say, no time like the present.

Seven Boxes of Awesomeness

This year I’m giving away something different. Over the last several months I have personally collected a stash of awesome items, and put them together to make seven unique gift boxes, each with its own theme.

The Seven Boxes of Awesomeness are:

1. Coffee Box A

An Awesome Box

A pair of custom coffee mugs, hand thrown and fired in Denver, Colorado by my friend Matt Jorgensen and which I commissioned specifically for this giveaway; a Hario V60 pour over coffee dripper with filters; and a Kyle Steed print.

2. Coffee Box B

An Awesome Box

A pair of custom handleless coffee mugs, hand thrown and fired in Denver, Colorado by my friend Matt Jorgensen and which I commissioned specifically for this giveaway; an AeroPress coffee maker; and a Kyle Steed print.

3. The Productivity Box

An Awesome Box

A Field Notes Pitch Black pack; one Best Made Co. Famous Red Notebook; a Behance Action Runner in blue; three Signo DX 0.38mm fine-tip gel ink pens (my personal favorite pen); and an Origami Workstation for iPad.

4. The Games Box

An Awesome Box

Includes the Dominion base game and the Puerto Rico board game. Both are favorites here at the Blanc house.

5 & 6: The Dapper boxes

An Awesome Box

A custom silk pocket square courtesy of Need; a silver tie stay, also courtesy of Need; a hardcover copy of the Eighteenth Edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

7. The Pixel Pusher Box

An Awesome Box

A signed copy of Mike Rhode’s Sketchnote Handbook; a 10-pack of Triplus Fineliner marker pens; a ruled Moleskine notebook; and a United Pixelworkers hat and standard issue patch.

How to Win

  • Anyone who signs up for a membership by midnight CST on Sunday, March 2 will automatically be in the runnings to win something.

  • Current members are, as always, automatically entered to win as well. In short, if you’re an active member as of Sunday night, March 2, then you’re entered to win.

  • You do not have to live in the United States to win.

  • The drawing will be the first week in March. Winners will be contacted by via the email associated with their membership (which is your PayPal email address if you’re a longstanding member still on the PayPal system).

  • If there is a certain box in particular that you’d like to win over another, please fill out this form. I will check it once the winners are drawn and try and assign each winner their first-choice if possible. You do not have to fill out the form to win, only to request a particular prize.

If you haven’t yet signed up to become a member, now would be a good time.

Update on March 3, 2014: The membership drive has come to an end. Thanks so much to all who signed up over the past two weeks, and to all the longstanding members who have supported this site for the past several years. For those who are not signed up as members, you can, of course, sign up at any time. And when you do you get instant access to the members-only podcast, Shawn Today, as well as access to the reruns page which features every show ever recorded (currently 485 episodes and counting).

Reader Supported for Three Years (And Counting…)

Sitting in front of my laptop’s camera, I felt so out of place and a little bit out of my mind.

That was February 2011, when I first announced that I would be quitting my day job to begin writing shawnblanc.net as my full-time gig. I knew I couldn’t keep writing full-time without some monthly support from a subscribing membership base.

And so I dressed up in my only suit, put on a tie, and recorded a video using the iSight camera on my old, aluminum 15-inch MacBook Pro. I didn’t know what to say then, and, three years in to things, I still don’t know what to say.

I spent several days making that video, trying to get the wording just right. How do you ask people to pay you to write about software, technology, and creativity and stuff?

Well, like this: You just ask. Put your hat out there and leave yourself to the — cough — generosity of your readers. And so here we are. This will be the fourth time I step out from behind the keyboard and hold my hat out and ask for your support.

It boils down to this: I’m writing and publishing the websites I want to read; I am giving all I have to do the best creative work that I can; and I couldn’t do this as my full-time gig without the support of this site’s subscribing members.

It has been an honor and a privilege to write for you, dear reader, these past three years. Though I don’t know what the next three years hold for this website, I hope — and believe — that my best creative work is still before me.

I think there are two elements which form the foundation of a successful creative business: creative freedom and financial stability. Therefore, I define creative success as having the opportunity to do work we’re proud of and the resources to keep doing that work.

In that vein, I consider shawnblanc.net a success. There isn’t a specific website, blog post, ebook, or podcast episode, that I would point to as being “it”. But that’s the point. I hope that over the past three years, I have contributed a little bit to the ever expanding and ever improving creative space we’re a part of.

I would be glad if I had done no more than to have helped carry on and facilitate our conversations and motivations for doing awesome work, making fantastic things, and feeling empowered to take risks.

For all of you who have been generous with your time over these years, coming here to spend a little bit of time reading, I thank you. And especially to those who have been generous with their money and have signed up for a membership. Your support of this site means the world to me and it serves as an indescribable encouragement that what I’m doing is worthwhile.

Now, that said, let’s talk briefly about this year’s Membership Drive.

A preview of this year’s membership drive and giveaway

This is the fun part… as usual, I’ll be doing a membership drive and giveaway.

Now, I’ll be posting more details about the giveaway tomorrow, but for now let’s just say that it’s very different than anything I’ve done here before.

Instead of hundreds of smaller prizes, I have instead put together just a handful of substantial prizes: Seven Boxes of Awesomeness, put together by myself. Each box has a select few items related to a few specific themes.

A note to current members

All current members are automatically entered to win, of course. The giveaway is not exclusive to new members only.

Secondly, and somewhat unrelated, last year I moved the membership software off of a PayPal-based system and onto a new, Stripe-based system. The new Stripe-based membership is significantly better in many ways. For those of you with memberships still being billed through PayPal, I encourage you to migrate over to the new Stripe system. You can find out all about the why and how right here.

Act now! How to become a member

If the value you get from this website is worth $4/month to you, then I hope you’ll consider signing up to become a member. As a member you’ll get access to my daily podcast, Shawn Today, and you’ll be directly contributing to the work I do here on a daily basis.

Moreover, signing up for a membership now means you’ll be entered to win one of the Seven Boxes of Awesomeness.

Sign up here. Then, tell your friends to sign up, tell your mom to sign up, and give yourself a very high five.

iPad: Air or mini?

Both iPads are an awesome compromise.

One of them (the iPad Air) has the bigger screen, and chances are it’s light enough. While the other (the iPad mini) is hyper-portable and light, and chances are its screen is big enough.

It’s easy to acclimate to either iPad. After a few days you’ll wonder why it was ever such a dilemma of a choice in the first place. When I’ve used just the iPad Air, I acclimated to its size and weight even though the iPad mini is nicer. And, conversely, when I used the iPad mini, I acclimated to its smaller screen even though the iPad Air’s bigger screen is nicer for some tasks.

I bought both an iPad Air and an iPad mini when they came out. I planned to use them side by side for about one month to see if I could come to a clear conclusion about “which was really the best”. I assumed it would take just a few weeks to see the obvious choice of which one I was partial to.

Boy was I wrong.

I’ve been using both iPads side-by-side for three months now and, well, I prefer them both. They are both favorites.

When I switch back and forth, after using the iPad mini for a while, the iPad Air feels almost comically large. But then, after using the iPad Air for a while, picking up the iPad mini feels almost tiny.

But, most of the time I find myself preferring the iPad mini. When reaching for an iPad around the house, I grab the mini. The mini goes with me when I’m traveling with my laptop. And I bring the mini when I don’t expect to need an iPad for anything but want to bring one anyway just in case.

There is only one cut and dry scenario in which I prefer the iPad Air: and that is for writing (with or without a bluetooth keyboard). But, yet, writing accounts for maybe 10-percent of my iPad usage. And using the iPad mini for writing is not exactly a horrible experience.

I have no reason to keep them both. (Well, I guess it’d be nice to have a day iPad and a night iPad.) And so I’m going with the iPad mini. And thus my recommendation to anyone on the fence: get the iPad mini, you’ll love it.

Unread for iPhone: A New Breed of RSS Reader

There are some apps which, due to the nature of their usage and/or contents, seem to earn a more personal connection from the user than other apps. Twitter apps I think are like this because they’re filled with the life updates, corny jokes, and selfies of our friends and family. Writing apps also can garner a connection with their users because they serve as the tool where we express our thoughts and feelings.

And though one might expect an RSS app to be insipid, or, at best, utilitarian, I find them quite the opposite — because they’re filled with the recent articles, photographs, and stories of my hand-chosen, favorite writers, photographers, and news outlets.

An RSS reader is the window into your curated world.

* * *

Like so many other life-changing moments, my relationship with RSS readers began in a church pew.

It was a Sunday morning in early 2007, and our Church had Wi-Fi, and I was sitting in a back corner with a friend, and instead of using my PowerBook G4 to take notes I was surfing the web reading all my favorite blogs.

If you’ve read my review of NetNewsWire, you’re already familiar with the story: I used to keep all the blogs I enjoyed reading in a bookmark folder in Safari on my Mac. But that Sunday morning, sitting next to my friend, he introduced me to an RSS reader.

“You can follow all those sites in one spot, you know?”

I didn’t know.

He set me up with the RSS reader in Safari (which has long since been removed). But I soon moved on to Vienna, and then NetNewsWire 3.1 on the Mac (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the all-time best pieces of Mac software ever).

I’ve also used Google Reader, NewsGator Online, Reeder for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, ReadKit, NetNewsWire on my iPhone, Byline, Fever, and probably a few more.

And now, today, we have Unread. It’s a brand new RSS app for the iPhone, and it is fantastic.

Unread

I have been using Unread throughout its beta period for the past two months, and in that time it has quietly usurped the previous RSS reader on my home screen.

Unread works with Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and Feedly. I’ve been using it with my Feed Wrangler account and it loads my unread items extremely quickly.

Unread is also very fun. It’s full of subtle animations and easy gestures. The app is understated, extremely readable, and welcoming.

It’s not that there’s anything in particular. There’s just a simple elegance to it. The app is well designed and nice to use.

It’s on launch sale for just $3 and I think it’s worth 10 times that. I paid $30 for NetNewsWire on my Mac half a decade ago, and now, years later, I’m using Unread on my iPhone instead.

Unread is somewhat different than any other app I’ve used before. And yet it’s also quite familiar. It has all the expected features — you can send an article to Instapaper or share it on Twitter or text message it to your friends — and yet they feel unexpected. The share sheet slides in from the right-hand side, and feels akin to the bouncy and playful animations of Tweetbot 3.

Design

I’ve long been a fan of Jared Sinclair’s design taste, and I consider Riposte to be one of the finest apps on my iPhone. I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is, but if I had to explain it in one word then I’d say Unread is peaceful.

But my hunch is that Unread will prove to be a somewhat polarizing app. Some, like me, will love it. Others, undoubtedly, will not like it.

The app has nearly both feet in iOS 7, but there is still a toe or two in iOS 6. There are little things — such as the design of the status bar at the top of the screen — that still feel reminiscent of iOS designs from yesteryear. But don’t read that as a dig against the app’s design…

The status bar doesn’t look like it belongs in the past, but it does have a slight nostalgic feel to it that is reminiscent of the more skeumorphic, graphics-heavy iOS designs of old. I am a fan of the status bar.

Gestures

When talking about Riposte, developer Jared Sinclair, said this:

We take push/pop transitions at face value: swiping to go back is like pulling yourself back to where you were before. If I can’t picture an app as a set of cards laid out in a grid on a table, I can’t understand it.

That exact same gesture-reliant design philosophy is prevalent all throughout Unread as well. The set of cards include (starting at the left-most, topmost “card”) the Home screen, the list of subscribed feeds and any folders or groups, the list of articles in those feeds, and then the article itself.

Hovering (theoretically) at all times to the right, is the share/action card. Pulling from right-to-left in any screen slides in the share sheet. From there you get access to a list of relevant actions and settings.

Unread App - Share Sheets

Common settings include changing themes (dark, light, and others), marking all articles as read, and more.

But the action sheet shows different options based on the context of when it was summoned. If you’re acting on a specific article, for example, then you have the option to “Share” the article and thus send it to Instapaper, Pinboard, OmniFocus, Twitter, your Safari Reading List, and more. To share a specific article directly from the article list view you have to tap and hold on that article.

By using this gesture-based share sheet, Unread has no persistent toolbar when reading an article. When in the various list views you see the status bar on top and a “navigation” bar on bottom that tells you where you are in the app. But when reading an individual article, you’re in full screen mode with nothing visible but the article itself.

Navigation and density

Unread’s home screen is where you start with access to the app’s settings and other special miscellany, as well as the RSS syncing platform of your choice (FeedWrangler, Feedbin, and/or Feedly). You then drill down to the high-level list of your feeds under your syncing engine account, and from there you can select which list of your articles you want to dig in to: all unread, all articles, one of your smart streams or folders, or your specific site feeds.

All of these sections — these “cards” — exude the basic design philosophy and opinion of Jared Sinclair: that the app would be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. But it is especially present when perusing down your list of individual unread articles.

Unlike most other RSS apps I’ve used, Unread shows considerably more content-per-article when viewing the list of articles. I’m used to seeing a condensed list of articles that shows each article title and time of posting (akin to email). In Unread, however, you see the article title, name of the website, time of posting, the first few sentences of the article, and, if there is an image as part of the article, then the image is shown as well.

Unread is not dense.

Unread App - Article List View

At first, this less-dense view irked me. But I quickly acclimated to it and now prefer it, even look forward to it.

Scrolling is free. In a context where I am assessing each individual article to decide if I want to read it or not, viewing just 2 or 3 article summaries on the screen at a time can be just as efficient as viewing 5 or 6 headlines. In fact, I’d argue that this less-dense list view is more efficient. For one, it presents more data per article, allowing you to read a bit of the article to help with your decision to drill down and read it in its entirety or not. And secondly, it is far easier to make a choice between 2 options than 6.

Quibbles

I do have a few nits to pick, however.

  • As it is now, when you are done reading an article, you can not go directly on to the next unread article. It would be nice to be able to go from one unread article to the next without having to go back to the list first.

  • By default, unread items persist in the list of articles (in a grayed-out state). You can get around this by tapping directly on the unread item count in a list instead of tapping on the list’s name in which you will see only the unread items in the list. However, I wish this behavior were reversed.

  • When you’re going to read a web page, the previously-loaded web page is there waiting for you until the new one comes up. Something about this feels slow or unconsidered to me.

Hooked

It was the design of Unread that hooked me right away — the app is clean, friendly, and warm, and all its type is set in Whitney — but the more I used it the more I began to appreciate and enjoy the functionality and feature decisions built into the app.

Unread is refreshingly simple and elegant. If you subscribe to RSS feeds and read them on your iPhone, take some time and use Unread for a while — I think you’ll be glad you did.

* * *

You can get Unread on the App Store (still propagating) for just $2.99.

Great Typefaces of 2013

This is a guest post, written by my good friend, Josh Farmer.



I may have a mild form of Aspergers, which makes me somewhat awkward in social situations. This is especially true when I get into nerdy conversations about very specific topics I enjoy. Typefaces are one of those topics.

What follows is an alphabetical listing of great typefaces from 2013. I hope it gets you thinking about how to branch out more into the world of type, whether in your creative ventures or as an informed reader.

Alverata by Gerard Unger

Alverata

Gerard Unger, one of the patriarchs of modern type design, is still going strong. For part of his Ph.D., he created Alverata as a new take on Romanesque forms. Inscription is the basis for this face, which can be seen in its sharp, short serifs and flared forms.

Alverata comes in three weights (Regular, Informal, and Alternates), each with their own purpose and feel. The Regular is just what it says on the tin: basic characters that play well with eleventh- and twelfth-century history. The Informal set introduces an unexpected softness with such things as a single-story a and calligraphic terminals. The Alternate weight is made for all kinds of medieval scenarios, goth lite logos, or maybe the next dragon movie.

Bree Serif by Veronika Burian & José Scaglione

Bree Serif

The extremely popular upright italic, Bree, got a charming seriffed cousin this year. All the personality is alive and well in Bree Serif, and now it has the added benefit of working in more scenarios.

Bree began as the typeface based on TypeTogether’s logo; it was an expansion of the e–T ligature Veronika created for their wordmark. The spry upright italic has been one of their most adored and most used typefaces since its creation. Bree Serif began as a Google Fonts project and matured into a full-fledged counterpart to Bree that comes in 12 weights and speaks multiple languages. It still has the looped g, y, and z that everyone recognizes and it includes alternate forms. As readable in text sizes as it is distinct in headlines, Bree Serif puts a pair of modern glasses on Bree’s face. We all know it’s our fun-loving friend, but now we know she’s serious about having a fun night out.

Domaine by Kris Sowersby

Domaine

What can I say about this type family? It’s gorgeous. Every curve is considered, every sharp point inviting. Its high class contrast will steal the money right out of your wallet and you will be all the richer for it. Seriously. Your type IQ will increase by using Domaine, which will cause others to rush to join your elite fan club. (Elite fan club not included.) Domaine is classy, erudite, and still fun. Its characters look like they began with a paintbrush and were finished with pen. It’s James Bond with a loosened tie.

FF Dora by Slávka Pauliková

FF Dora

Yet another strong release from FontFont, the team behind fontshop.com. FF Dora’s hybrid personality mixes the freedom of brush strokes with the restraint needed for a text serif. It strikes me as a contender to the great Skolar family, though it has only six weights so far. I love seeing the bulge created by the turns of the brush at the baseline when retracing a stem, such as with the italic m. Other lovely touches: the asymmetrical dot on the i, the inktraps on stem–curve joins, the italic k, the wide stance of the typeface itself, and how the stems are slightly flared.

The display version takes every aspect three steps further, daring you to slather its personality across something mundane. And who doesn’t love the section and dagger symbols? The only improvement I would have requested is more alternates for each character to expand the painterly possibilities. And ponies and world peace, but one thing at a time.

Exquise FY by FontYou

Exquise FY

Exquise is great when you want some pizzazz with your Didone substitute. I love the diagonal modified terminals that curve in on themselves, the numerous beautiful ligatures, and the gently curved strokes that finish off some letters, such as the lower- and uppercase k, v, and w. Due to these qualities, Exquise is elegant when used large and it won’t let you skip too quickly when used smaller in text.

Haven’t heard of FontYou? Think of it as a font hub where you can submit your type doodles, see those from others, vote, and then buy the ones that get awsome-ized (that is, made into real typefaces). It’s your neighborhood farm-to-market fonts that you can have a hand in creating. This is organic at its finest.

Kumla by Göran Söderström

Kumla

Söderström has put out some fantastic typefaces over the years, such as Trim, Siri, Heroine, and FF Dagny — each with a very specific goal in mind. Now we are treated to the best remake of something worthy of a Russian version of Star Trek.

This high-waisted typeface feels that way thanks to the shallow bowl on the R and P, the quick curve of the S, and how the N connects its two stems. Use it in place of Eurostile, as a futuristic replacement for Helvetica (gasp, sacrilege!), as a more industrial version of Neo Sans, or to create some unforgettable branding.

MVB Solitaire by Mark van Bronkhorst

MVB Solitare

Sometimes what you need isn’t so much a show stopper as a workhorse that blends into an overall scheme. Web historians might put Verdana and Lucida in that do-it-all wallflower category. Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Mark Simonson have winners in this category with Whitney and Proxima Nova, respectively. MVB Solitaire belongs in that dignified grouping. Its enormous x-height means it’s easy to set as small as you want without any worries about legibility, and the lowercase g takes on different personalities in each weight.

MVB Solitaire is a straight shooter with just enough personality to pair well with almost anything. This means that, though no one would put these faces in the same category, MVB Solitaire can stand in equally well for Gill Sans, Myriad, Futura, or Verdana.

Magasin by Laura Meseguer

Magasin Typeface

Magasin is a friendly connected script based on the flattened oval. That geometric foundation makes way for the connections to be seen, and the separated strokes show how each letter was formed. As for me, I love the pilcrow, British pound, and Registered symbols. If you ever get the chance to rebrand the Madeline cartoon and they’re ready to change the hand-drawn wordmark, put Magasin on the list.

Dieter Hofrichter of hoftype.com

Fonts by Hofrichter

Dieter Hofrichter gets the award as one of the most prolific typeface producers each year. Last year he released 11 faces; this year it was six, of which my eye is drawn to Capita, Foro Rounded, Quant, and Qubo.

Granted, some releases are rounded versions of typefaces Hofrichter has already created, but that doesn’t make his productivity any less impressive. His typefaces are great for setting a textual tone and are optimized for setting medium or long texts, so try one of his to replace your normal text face. How easy is this to do? Super easy, because Hoftype usually gives away one weight of each new family for free. Keep an eye on Hoftype next year. Who knows how many new faces we will be graced with in 2014.

Remo by Thomas Thiemich

Remo

Oh, happy retinas, Remo is here! Thiemich has a way of crossing categories better than almost anyone in type design today. I was immediately drawn to his exhaustive Alto type family, with its friendly inner raindrop shape and variety of widths and weights. He’s back once again showing off his serious design skills and his eye for what works across several decades of type design. If a relaxed geometric is what you need, instead of another strict redrawing on a grid, Remo is it.

Thiemich started with strict geometry, but then moved on with more charm and maturity than you would expect from a turn-of-the-century typeface. Each stroke is pushed toward the outside of the block of space it inhabits, so the thin glyphs feel like they maintain about the same area as the heavy weights. If Remo were alive, I’d imagine it got frozen in time as it inhaled.

Check out the difference between the thin and light weights of the M; the center apex moved down. The curls added to the a, d, and l, along with the cheery s, create gentility. The low-waisted R, Y, and S are begging for some Broadway attention, but don’t pigeonhole it to 1920s New York; the a, J, Q, and l would never feel at home there. And that’s the genius of this type family — it fits multiple styles like a glove. I love the descending italic f and the face’s enormous x-height, but you might be just as happy to replace the overused Futura. Or Univers. Or Avenir. Or Mr. Eaves. Or Broadway, you Windows users who still want to use the marching ants effect. When you’re ready to get a typeface that can handle so many different decades, Remo is your man. This typeface makes me happy.

Sauna Mono by Underware at underware.nl

Sauna Mono

Forget the days of coding headaches. Sauna is interesting to look at — even fun. So far, monospaced typefaces have been bitmappy, annoying, and just horrid. Nitti put a dent in that universe but didn’t truly change the expectation. Sauna Mono is the answer to, “And what normal person would ever want to look at a coding font for hours each day?” Someone who is staring at Sauna Mono, that’s who. Sauna has personality and good looks; it’s definitely not your grandma’s mono, which sounds weird now that I’ve said it. Classy, readable, and with another text and display family just waiting to be discovered. If you do any coding behind the scenes or screenwriting important scenes, you should check Sauna Mono out. Why not do your job well and love the typeface you’re using at the same time? And I do mean love. Don’t just take whatever mono Sublime Text has packaged, get something you will love. Sauna Mono fits this bill.

Supernova by Martina Flor

Supernova

Ever since Lettering vs. Calligraphy took the font world by storm, I’ve been waiting to see a brush script come from Martina Flor’s hand. Supernova is her brilliant release that doesn’t lose one ounce of energy, regardless how it’s used.

Supernova’s most amazing feature? It’s readable. Yes, it actually works in short- to medium-length text. She made five weights specifically for text and one with more expressiveness for use in huge sizes, appropriately called the poster weight. She then added a few alternates for each glyph and some decorative elements such as curls, frames, slathers, and dollops. My gut feeling is that she had to force herself to stop adding alternates and decoration. Supernova is cheeky and vibrant. It’s perfect for packaging and will also add some much-needed charm to the neutral or overwrought geometric typeface you were forced to pick by some faceless committee. Not that this has ever happened to me you.

Zulia by Joluvian and Ale Paul

Zulia

Zulia is an expressive, legible paintbrush face with great alternates. Quick turns and extended swashes are the easiest to notice, but look at the downward strokes for a lesson in controlled speed. This typeface is precisely what Sudtipos are known for.

* * *

A final thought. I’m making two calls: This will be the year of the alternate glyphs, and a year of focusing more on multilingualism in type.

We’ve seen much of these before, but I think it’s increasing substantially. We’ve seen type designers create awesome things from scratch and breathe new life into entire categories, so now I think many designers will use alternate glyphs to distinguish themselves and their typefaces. We’ve seen a bit of this in the past, especially with well done scripts such as Underware’s Liza. Lately there’s been a trend toward sans and serif families with a greater range and the ability to switch tones. Alternates for characters such as a, g, e, s, and l provide just such a tonal distinction. Read Kris Sowersby’s article on Metric & Calibre to see how easily and effectively tone can be changed through just a few letters. I’m guessing this will become standard practice, in tandem with a long-awaited multilingualism for major releases, in which type families are created from the start with something more than the Latin alphabet as the driving force. What would the Latin alphabet look like if it came through the filter of the Cherokee language first? Little experiments like this are happening all the time, and I think the world sees better with pluralistic, artistic glasses on.

So here’s to this past year in typefaces and to the great start of 2014. Because, in case you didn’t know, just since I began writing this article several more typefaces were released. And that’s great news.

Grandpa’s iPad

My grandpa is legally blind. He can see, but poorly. When he reads books they are the extra large print editions, and he holds them so close they’re practically resting on his nose. And when he watches an old western film from his VHS collection he sits about two feet away from his big-screen TV.

Last weekend, while in Colorado visiting family, we had a big family dinner at my parents’ house. I loaded my 2-year-old son, Noah, into the car and we drove to pick up my Grandpa from his apartment and bring him over for dinner.

My Grandparents’ homes were always filled with seemingly floor to ceiling photos of family. And his current apartment is no different. There are picture frames on the table and on the desk and on the dresser, and snapshots of grandchildren have been printed out (with the help of more tech-savvy relatives) and thumb-tacked to the walls.

At the apartment, I held Noah while my Grandpa gathered his things — his coat, hat, and walker. And, a new item now: his iPad.

The iPad was a gift from my aunt. It’s a 3rd generation and she doesn’t use it that often so she gave it to him hoping he could use it. (Perhaps as a giant remote control for the TV?)

But my Grandpa discovered a use for it that none of us had considered. It is the best camera he’s ever owned.

Before leaving the apartment, Noah and I had to pose for a picture. Holding the iPad about 10 inches in front of his face, my Grandpa snapped a few photos.

I know there are people out there who take pictures using their iPads, because I’ve seen — ahem — pictures of them doing it. But I’ve always thought it a bit funny and awkward.

And there I was. Posing to have my picture taken with an iPad.

At first, I wanted to snicker. But how could I? If my Grandpa wants to use an iPad to take a picture of his grandson and great grandson, then who cares? Certainly not me.

Back at my parent’s house, my Grandpa continued to spend the first part of the evening taking everyone’s picture. Several of my cousins were there, and many of us don’t get to see my Grandpa more often than every couple of months, if not longer. It was a prime time for snapshots.

Later, Noah quickly warmed up to my Grandpa thanks to the iPad. (As any parent knows, iPads and iPhones are captivating to a toddler. Noah is already quite fluent with iOS and has been sliding to unlock since before he could walk.) The iPad was a way for my Grandpa to spend some time with Noah at his side, as the two of them flipped through the camera roll.

With a smile, I’ve been thinking about that evening for the past week.

My Grandpa’s iPad has enabled him to do something that he’s been unable to do for as long as I can remember. The 9.7-inch touch screen has turned my Grandpa into a photographer.

The screen is large enough that he can see well enough to actually frame and take pictures. And then he has them right there, on that same large screen, where he can browse through them any time he wants.

To me, that’s pretty magical.

Introducing The Weekly Briefly Podcast

This week I’m launching a new podcast: The Weekly Briefly.

(Though, if we’re going to be technical about it, it’s not really a new podcast… It’s more like a new spin on my current podcast.)

I’ve been recording and publishing my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, since February 2011. As of this morning I have published 467 episodes. Over the years, topics have run mostly parallel to topics here on shawnblanc.net — such as software, productivity and time management, photography, design, and more. But I’ve also talked about things I don’t write about, such as impostor syndrome, finances and budgeting, life as a dad, and more. On more than one occasion, Shawn Today has been the seedbed for future articles and reviews here on shawnblanc.net. (Last summer, Shawn Today was even the seedbed for an entire book.)

With Shawn Today now entering its 4th season, I want to change things up a bit. Here’s why:

  • I very much enjoy doing Shawn Today, but I wanted to expand the show’s reach and add something new to the mix to see what would happen.
  • The Weekly Briefly is a way for those who aren’t members to still listen to my podcast (albeit a weekly version instead of the daily), and a way for me to put some of my podcasts out there for anyone and everyone. Because, I believe ideas that spread, win.
  • For those who are members, but who don’t keep up with the daily episodes, now you have an easier target if you want: just listen to the once-a-week show.
  • Hopefully this once-a-week public episode will draw in new subscribers to the members-only daily podcast.

If you’re already listening to Shawn Today, there’s no need to subscribe to The Weekly Briefly because the latter will double as the Friday episode of the former.

My deepest and most sincere thanks to all the subscribing members of this site who listen to the show, give feedback, and enhance the conversation. You’ve made the past 467 episodes of Shawn Today a possibility, and I am very much looking forward to what the next 467 episodes have in store.

Remarkable Things

Good marketing can get customers in the door the first time, but it’s a great product that keeps them coming back (and bringing their friends with them).

When someone tells their friend about a great gadget they’ve been using or a non-profit they’ve been supporting, that word-of-mouth marketing carries far more weight than a hundred advertisements.

Here are a handful of things which I personally find awesome for one reason or another and have recommended to more than one person on more than one occasion:

  • iPhone: A revolution in mobile computing and software.

  • iPad: The new personal computer that you can hold with one hand, gets 12 hours of battery, has an internet connection anywhere there’s cell service, and is easy and simple to use for many tasks.

  • Field Notes: Simple little pocket notebooks that carry a ton of personality.

  • AeroPress: A coffee-making contraption that is easy to use, easy to clean up, fits in your kitchen cabinet (instead of taking up a square foot of counter space) and just so happens to make very delicious coffee.

  • Mirrorless cameras: Small, compact, affordable cameras that are capable of taking photos on par with big, bulky, expensive cameras.

  • Editorial: Took the Geeky iPad Writing Market by storm with all of its powerful and fancy features that make writing for the web easier and faster.

  • Instapaper: Equal parts tool and placebo, Instapaper lets us save things we want to read later. Sometimes we actually get around to reading those articles when we’re in a better setting and/or have the time. Other times we never get around to reading the items we’ve saved, but having a place to save those things in the moment helps us move on with our day, guilt-free.

  • Parisi coffee: A new-ish coffee shop down the road from me that makes consistently delicious coffee and has a very friendly staff.

  • Twitter, Instagram, (and Facebook): Changed the way we communicate, share, and connect with our friends.

  • Netflix: It started out as a cheap service where you could get all the DVDs your heart desired sent right to your house. Then it turned into a cheap service where you could stream a whole bunch of movies any time you wanted (and you didn’t have to have a cable TV subscription).

  • Settlers of Catan: A semi-geeky strategy game that’s geeky enough for board game enthusiasts to enjoy while also being easy enough for everyone else to enjoy as well.

I’ve found that some common factors amongst remarkable things include simplicity, focus, personality, delight, nostalgia, and/or excellence.

There isn’t a 1-2-3 recipe for building something other people will want to talk about. And though it’s certainly not easy, neither is it impossible.

The CODE Keyboard with Clear Switches

It’s quite easy to nerd out over mechanical keyboards (I have the blog posts to prove it). There is a type of satisfaction that comes with typing on a mechanical keyboard that is rare in our touch-screen, trackpad, chicklet key world. The thud, the click, the clack — the physical work it takes to type — of a mechanical keyboard is something that hooked me once I experienced it.

My first mechanical keyboard was the Macintosh version of the Das. It’s splendid, but giant. After testing a half-dozen other mechanical keyboards over the course of a few months, I’ve been using a Filco Majestouch-2 Ninja for quite a while now and I think it’s fantastic. The Filco Ninja is tenkeyless, well built, and uses the Blue switches.

I did not order a CODE Keyboard when it went on sale because the keyboard uses Clear switches which I knew I didn’t want.

My cousin, however, did order one, and over the holiday he brought it out to Kansas City so I could use it for a few weeks and then he left it with me to use for a while because he’s cool like that.

I’ve been typing on this keyboard since December 21st and my consensus is this: The CODE is an awesome keyboard, but I don’t like the feel of the Clear switches.

Right off the bat, anyone familiar with a keyboard using the popular Blue switches, will notice that the Clears are quieter. They are more muted and produce a “thud” rather than a click. The keyboard is quieter but not necessarily quiet. If you were in a small office, sitting next to someone, the keyboard is still going to make a bit of a thud and clack as the key caps themselves bottom out when you’re typing, but there isn’t the neighborhood-waking click-clack that accompanies the Blue switches.

The CODE Keyboard has been sold out for a few months primarily because of the difficulty of getting Clear switches. On the keyboard’s website they’ve posted a few updates (one last September and another last November) stating that new keyboards are in production and will include a variety of switches to chose from: Green, Brown, and Blue.

The Green switches are a new switch. They’re pretty much identical in sound and feel to the Blue switches in that they are tactile and clicky, but the Green’s have an actuation force of 80g and a bottom-out force of 105g (the Blue switches are 50g and 65g respectively). Thus, the Greens are going to offer noticeably more resistance than just about any keyboard you’ve ever used.

If/when the CODE keyboard becomes available with Blue switches, I’ll buy it in a heartbeat. Of all the different types of mechanical keyboards I’ve tried, I still remain a fan of the sound, feel, and tactile feedback of the Blue Switches. The CODE keyboard is of equal build quality as my Filco Ninja, but the LED backlighting of the CODE is just fantastic and I love it. It’s unfortunate WASD Keyboards don’t let you build a custom keyboard with LED backlighting as an option.

My URL Schemes for Posting Links From My iPhone and iPad Using Poster

After publishing my iPad App Playlist, several folks asked me via Twitter and email to share the workflows I use for posting links to this site.

The app I use is Poster, and unfortunately it’s no longer available for sale in the App Store. Thus I didn’t make a big deal out of how I use the app because I assumed many people wouldn’t be able to make use of such nerdy information. But, based on the feedback I’ve been getting lately, perhaps I was wrong.

And so here are the details for how I use Poster on my iPad (and iPhone) to post links to this site.

* * *

There are three places I come across things worth linking to: Safari, my RSS feeds, and my Instapaper queue. (Technically there are four, counting Twitter, but I don’t yet know of a way to get from Tweetbot to Poster, and so often most things I want to link to that I find in Tweetbot I’ll either send to Instapaper or open in Safari.)

Since I use YJ’s Linked List plugin on my site to handle the “swapping” of the permalink URL and the linked-to URL in the RSS feed and on the Home Page, the name of the Custom Field in my WordPress install is linked_list_url. Poster allows you to add the value of a custom field from within the URL scheme by defining it as such: customfield_YOURCUSTOMFIELDNAMEHERE

Also, I have the callback_url set as this site’s homepage. That way once I’ve posted the link from Poster I’m automatically sent over to shawnblanc.net to make sure that the link properly posted.

Safari → Poster

If I’m in Mobile Safari on my iPad or iPhone, I tap this javascript bookmarklet and it will send me to Poster and create a link post with the Title of the website set as the title of my post, and the URL of the web page set as the linked-to URL for my post.

javascript:window.location='posterapp:///create?text='+encodeURIComponent(window.getSelection())+'&title='+(document.title)+'&customfield_YOURCUSTOMFIELDNAME='+(window.location.href)+'&callback_url=http://example.com/';

I then can paste in the quote I want to use (if any) into the body, type in my commentary, and hit Publish.

One thing the Poster URL scheme does not allow is the pre-defining of a category. All my link posts are in the "Linked" category; all my articles are in the "Article" category, and I use some custom WordPress hooks for adjusting the style of a post depending on if it is in the linked category of the articles category. In the WordPress admin panel, I've selected the Linked category as the default. Thus, if I publish a post without first assigning the proper category, WordPress will automatically assign it to the Linked category. Therefore I don't even have to set the category for my link posts when sending them from Poster (thus saving me a few extra taps).

Mr. Reader → Poster

I recently discovered that Mr. Reader supports custom actions. I've now switched over to Mr. Reader as my RSS reading app of choice, and build a URL scheme that allows me to take the title, URL, author, and any highlighted text and then place it into Poster so I can publish it as a link on shawnblanc.net.

My URL looks like this (with my personal site-specific tidbits swapped out for generic examples):

posterapp://x-callback-url/create?title={[TITLE]}&text={[AUTHOR]: > [TEXT-SELECTED]}&customfield_yourcustomfieldnamegoeshere={[URL]}&callback_url={http://example.com/}

To set up a custom action in Mr. Reader you tap on the Settings icon → Services → scroll down to Add → Other App

From there, if you have Poster installed on your iPad, you'll see it in the list. Add it, insert your custom URL scheme, and you're good to go. Now, when you're reading an article in Mr. Reader that you want to link to from your site, just tap the actions button, and then tap Poster.

Instapaper → Drafts → Poster

Within the Instapaper app there is an option to share to Drafts, so I use Drafts as the "middle man" for taking an interesting article and getting the title, author, link, and any quoted text into Poster.

To start, when I've come across an article in Instapaper which I want to link to on my site, I highlight any text I want to quote and then tap the "Share" button which appears after highlighting. (If I want to link to the article without highlighting any text from it, simply tap the action button in the top right, then tap Share.)

When the Instapaper share sheet pops up, I chose to create a draft in Drafts.

Instapaper automatically inserts the title of the article on the first line, the URL on the second line, then a line break, and then any text I had selected.

This is where Drafts gets awesome. You can define certain lines, and/or ranges of lines, to be the content for different components when sending the text file into Poster.

So, after my draft is auto-created from Instapaper, I tidy it up a bit, by cleaning up the title (if need be), adding an extra line break between the title and the URL, and then writing out any additional commentary, etc., in the body.

I then send the Draft to Poster, using my custom action which defines the title (the first line) of the Draft as the title of the link post, the 3rd line of the Draft as the URL for the custom field, and then everything from line 5 on as the body text.

posterapp://x-callback-url/create?title=[[title]]&text=[[line|5..]]&customfield_linked_list_url=[[line|3]]&callback_url=http://shawnblanc.net/

(Tapping here from your iPhone/iPad should allow you to install this action in Drafts automatically (you'll then want to tweak it of course to your own usage needs.)

Pebble Steel, Et Al.

Yesterday Pebble announced the new design of their watch, the Pebble Steel. While I do think it looks nicer than the original (which isn’t saying much), I’m still uninterested.

My disinterest with smart watches like the Pebble (or the Gear, or the MetaWatch, or…) is three-fold:

  • For one, I don’t feel the need to be more connected to notifications (if anything, it’s the opposite). The things that the Pebble does best — such as notifying me of an incoming text message or phone call, telling me the outside temperature, etc. — don’t appeal to me.

  • And then on the flip side, for things like the Pebbles new apps such as Yelp, why not just use the app on your phone? Is it really that much faster and easier and more convenient to use the little buttons on your watch? I could be wrong here, but if the Pebble needs a smartphone to work (the apps can’t get their data without using the connected phone’s network signal) then what is the advantage of navigating a miniature version of the app on your wrist? Perhaps it’s more polite than pulling out your phone?

  • And then, not to mention, the watches themselves just don’t look all that cool or attractive to me.

People are saying that the trend today (and the future?) is wearable computing, and that may be true. But in my mind there is still a long road ahead.

Smart watches, smart glasses, smart bracelets, and smart tie stays (or whatever) need to reach a point where they are simultaneously more useful and friction-free than just using the phone that’s already in our pockets as well as being attractive and cool to wear.

The FitBit and FuelBand are good examples of this. They are subtle and do/did something that our iPhones didn’t: track our steps and movement throughout the day. However, our phones are getting more and more capable every year, and so wearable devices such as the FitBit also need to provide an advantage that our phones won’t make obsolete.

A Brief, Unordered Miscellany Regarding the Olympus E-PL5, E-P5, and E-M5 Cameras

(Why do camera names always have to be a mouthful of awkward? Nevertheless,) I’ve not been silent in my affinity for the Olympus E-PL5 which I bought over a year ago and have been using and enjoying ever since.

To give myself context when writing about the E-PL5, I’ve rented two other awesome M43 cameras: Last spring I rented the E-M5 (which was the Olympus flagship M43 camera at the time) and over this past holiday I rented the E-P5.

In a nut, each of these three cameras are more-or-less capable of producing the exact same quality of images in almost any circumstance (because they all have the same sensor and image processor on the inside). For the most part, the variables are the lenses and the burden is on the photographer.

However, there are some nice features and other bells and whistles that the E-M5 and E-P5 have which the E-PL5 does not. Such as:

  • E-PL5 doesn’t have any dedicated dials for adjusting Aperture, Exposure, Etc.
  • The E-PL5 has 4-axis In Body Image Stabilization, while the E-P5 and E-M5 have 5-axis IBIS.
  • E-M5 has weather sealing, E-P5 and E-PL5 do not.
  • E-M5 has a built-in viewfinder.
  • The E-P5 has a built-in flash.
  • E-P5 has an ISO range from 100 to 25,600 (the E-PL5 and E-M5 only go down to 200).
  • The E-P5 has a max shutter speed of 1/8000 (presumably for taking pictures of the sun at high noon with your f/1.4 lens’s aperture wide open) compared to 1/4000 for the E-PL5 and E-M5.
  • The E-M5 has good battery life, the E-P5 and E-PL5 have great battery life.
  • All cameras have a dust reduction system that silently vibrates the sensor each time you turn on the camera to help “fling” any dust which may be there and keep the sensor clean.
  • The E-P5 has a wi-fi mode that can connect the camera to the Olympus iOS app and send images to your iPad/iPhone.

In my two weeks using the E-P5 during this past Christmas and New Year, I oftentimes wanted to (and even did) reach for my E-PL5 instead. The E-P5 is noticeably larger and heavier (albeit, not significantly so). And, to my surprise, I hardly ever used the manual dial controls for quickly adjusting aperture, shutter speed, exposure, on the fly.

What I enjoyed most from my rental gear wasn’t the better camera, but was actually the 25mm f/1.4 lens. I haven’t used this lens in over a year and I had forgotten just how fast it is to autofocus when compared to the 20mm f/1.7 lens I have been using, and how much more character there is in the images it makes.

In my opinion, the advantages of the E-M5 and the E-P5 over the E-PL5 are almost entirely in the bells and whistles and not in the end-product capabilities of making photos. For many people, the extra features and controls are worth the extra cost. But for me, I think the $450 saved by buying the E-PL5 instead of the E-M5 or E-P5 is money better spent on a nice lens.

One day I’ll upgrade my E-PL5 to something a little bit bigger with a few more features. But for now, I’d much rather invest in another great lens (or two). The more I’ve tried different cameras, the more I realize the important thing is to just find a kit you love to use. If you find yourself saying “it’s magical” then you’ve got it.

Unexpected Exceedings: Delightful Details in Film

This is a guest post, written by my good friend, Josh Farmer.



I love films. I love having adventures I’ll never have, seeing worlds I’ll never see, and asking questions I may never have asked on my own.

We’ve been told that it’s the little things that count, and one of the neatest things is when a filmmaker finds a way to express our human experience with little details to which we can relate. Think of them as movie Easter eggs. I’ve collected a few of these delightful details below.

Rise of the Guardians is a movie about holiday personalities joining forces against the evils of disbelief and fear. Santa, Jack Frost, and the Easter Bunny lead the odd pack of good guys. A detail that stuck out to me was how a flower pops up through the asphalt after the Easter Bunny creates a rabbit hole to travel through. We’ve all seen those pesky dandelions in the middle of a parking lot. Now we know how they get there.

Marvel’s Avengers teams up the leads from the last few films as they take on the aliens invading New York. Bruce Banner is goaded to smash a few alien ships with the simple, “Now might be a good time to get angry.” Banner, in a line that harkens back to a tense mid-flight argument with the rest of the team, finally lets us in on his big secret: “I’m always angry.” This tells us more about his real struggles with identity and responsibility than it does his anger itself.

Christopher Nolan’s first major film was a noir mystery and thriller called Following. A brilliant debut by a destined director, the protagonist fancies himself a writer and, by following those he is basing his characters upon, is led into two relationships, some burglaries, a murder, a cover-up, revenge, and much more. His B&E mentor invites him to take whatever he wants from a home, but instructs him to create more of a mess than necessary. That way, he says, the owners know that their most intimate possessions were seen, that their soul hidden in keepsake boxes was viewed in its most brute form — as plain, emotionless facts without context or justification. Against this smash-and-grab backdrop, one clue is said about the way we structure our lives. “I know how long to stay in a home I’ve broken into because they always write their return date on the calendar.” Don’t we all.

(On a side note, Nolan’s directing track record is impeccable: Memento, Following, Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception. Watch one of his if you want a guaranteed-good film but don’t want something seasonal.)

Ever notice that the monkey in Disney’s Aladdin only went klepto on items that were red? You will now.

In order to turn his head, the robot boy in Steven Spielberg’s AI used a two-step process. First he moved his eyes to where he wanted to turn, then he rotated his head to where he was looking.

Many Disney-Pixar films have one or more characters from another Disney-Pixar film, usually from the upcoming one rather than the previous.

Epic puts a miniaturized human into a magical woodland. Whenever the fairies’ arrows strike trees, a knot forms in that spot. So next time you see a knot in a piece of wood, tell your kids that magic happened there.

The Matrix was the genre-expanding philosophical sci-fi flick which explained that déjà vu was a software glitch within the world of the Matrix. If you like the possibilities of a Matrix world but have never read the comics or essays that went with the original 1999 release, you should (full list here, via Wayback Machine). This one, called “Goliath”, has great pacing and the feeling of various Matrix glitches occurring within the story.

The Matrix Reloaded continued the storyline with bigger explosions and with more commitment to functioning across the two worlds. It was panned by most critics, as most part-twos are, but it might have been because they missed the point: The monologues and dialogues are where the action’s at. Greek plays function on this same principle. The conversations push you into the next action sequence, but the philosophy of the Matrix world is preeminent. One detail I liked was how vampires and ghosts are just faulty, banished programs going against their orders, trying to stay alive even if that means embarking upon reprobate adventures.

Downton Abbey uses shaky handheld cinematography when the subject is the servants, but steady and composed shots when the wealthy figures take screen time.

Wreck-it Ralph brought early gaming history to the big screen with a great story. They tackled topics such as equality, sexism, racism, bullying, and of course friendship, loyalty, and destiny. The best little detail for me was the spot-on staccato movements of the people in Ralph’s game. Just perfect.

All these are examples of unexpected exceedings — when we are delighted because someone explains our shared human experiences; when we agree that we’ve done or thought something, but assumed we were the only one; when our philosophy is reflected back to us in a way or from a place we didn’t expect; when we came to be entertained but walked away impressed; when the Easter eggs hatched in our hot little hands.

Through delight, these small glimpses connect us emotionally to the art form. As artists, designers, and ones who produce, we serve others well by exploiting (I do mean this in the best way) the ability to delight.

All The Lists That Are Fit To List

It’s the end of the year and we’re all encountering more lists than we can count. We’re looking back and aggregating then distilling the best ____ of 2013. Videos, articles, apps, magazine covers, you name it. Well, here is my list of the best lists.

Got What I Wanted

Yesterday was a day spent with family, enjoying each others’ company, laughing, and having great conversations. I hope you had a very merry Christmas and continue to have a blessed holiday season.

— Shawn

My iPad App Playlist: Constraint and Creativity

This is the iPad version of my App Playlist articles. You can read my iPhone App Playlist here; Mac version coming next.

Constraint and Creativity

Though the topic of iPads and content creation versus content “consumption” sure gets its fair share of air time, I have yet to tire of the conversation.

The first computer I personally ever owned was a Dell laptop. I bought it with my high school graduation money and took it with me to college. Almost all of of my college friends had HP towers, Dell towers, or (like in the case of my roommate) built their own machine. Laptops were (and are) more expensive, but had less power, less storage, and less screen real estate. But I didn’t care.

Laptops have always been cool to me. My Dell laptop was succeeded by a 12-inch PowerBook G4, then a 15-inch MacBook Pro (the aluminum body), and then a 13-inch MacBook Air (the computer I use now). In a way, laptops represent a sort of “free spiritedness” that desktop computers don’t. And, over the years since that Dell, the tradeoffs in laptops have grown smaller and smaller — today’s laptops are so powerful and fast that most people are not sacrificing any noticeable performance tradeoffs for portability.

And now, it’s the iPad that’s the new cool. Except with the iPad Air and new iPad mini, the tradeoffs are all but gone as well. While we could compare the nitty gritty specs of how fast a MacBook Pro loads a web page versus how fast an iPad does, most of that is inconsequential for most users today. Not to mention, there are many hardware features of an iPad which make it superior to a Mac: the hours long battery life, the built-in LTE connectivity, the very small and light form factor, the retina screen with multitouch input.

You could say that pretty much the only “tradeoff” of getting an iPad as your main computer would be the tradeoff of software. But I don’t think even that is accurate. Because defining something as a tradeoff requires you put that tradeoff in context.

Regarding software, for many people, I think it’s fair to say the lesser machine is actually the Mac, not the iPad.

Over on The Sweet Setup, we recently tested 17 different iPad apps that manage and edit PDF documents to find the best one. Our pick, PDF Expert 5, is a fantastic app. And guess what? There are things PDF Expert 5 does — such as merging PDF documents, making annotations, or zipping up a group of files and sending them to someone in an email — which are far easier and more intuitive to do on the iPad app than on a Mac.

Sure, iPad software — and iOS — has its limitations. For instance, I can’t hack together awesome system-wide shortcut keys and scrips using Keyboard Maestro, nor can I get TextExpander to work in iOS’s Mail app. But that’s okay. Never once have those limitations hindered me from doing some great work from my iPad. In fact, oftentimes it is the limitations of iOS which empower me to do better work. Because constraint breeds creativity.

This is why, for me, the iPad makes for a fantastic writing device. I am neither a programmer nor designer by trade — the bulk of my work day is comprised of reading, writing, tweeting, and emailing.

A cup of hot coffee, my bluetooth keyboard, and my iPad is one of my favorite ways to write. The one-app-at-a-time constraint of iOS, along with the relatively difficult way to switch between apps (when compared to the Mac’s CMD+Tab), make iOS a nice “anti-distraction writing environment”.

But there is much more I do from the iPad beyond writing. And that’s the point of this whole post. So, without further ado…

Let’s start with the apps I use on a regular basis — my Mission-Critical Apps

  • OmniFocus: I’ve been using the OmniFocus suite of apps (Mac, iPhone, and iPad) for over three years now. Of the three apps, I find the iPad version to be the best. Coming back to one of the points I made at the beginning of this article, OmniFocus on the iPad is a quintessential example of iPad software being superior to Mac software.

    However… once a year, usually around the New Year, I like to step back and consider if the tools I’m using are still the best tools for me. If the answer is “yes” then I leave things alone and get back to work. But if the answer is “no” then I try to consider if its my use of the tools or the tools themselves that are flawed.

    Lately, I have been wondering if OmniFocus is now too complex for me as I’ve settled into a grove with my work-from-home schedule. But, as I’ve considered other alternatives, I just can’t conceive of quitting OmniFocus — it’s a task management system that I trust. I know that if and when an important task becomes due, OmniFocus will show it to me.

    This is something that I will be revisiting in the near future but for now, OmniFocus remains one of my “mission critical” apps (on all devices).

  • Day One: This is the best journaling app out there. I keep Day One on my iPad’s Home screen even though I mostly write in it from my iPhone or Mac. I have no rules for how I use Day One, nor for how often I use it. My entries are all sorts of things, including photos, one-line milestone mentions about my kids, deep thoughts, brain dumps of ideas, and more.

  • Tweetbot: My go-to Twitter app on the iPad. I am very much looking forward to an update influenced by the iPhone version.

  • 1Password: 1Password is far more than just a password manager. If that’s all it was then the updates to iCloud keychain sync would have negated the need for 1Password. However, 1Password also stores secure notes, bank information, and pretty much anything else I can think of. Though I use 1Password most often from my iPhone or Mac, I couldn’t imagine not having it on my iPad.

  • Instapaper: Years later, Instapaper continues to be my go-to Read Later app. I love the design and I’ve got an IFTTT recipe that takes all of my Instapaper “liked” articles and drops them into Pinboard for me. I used to use the iPad version almost exclusively. But since having kids I now use the iPhone version almost as much as the iPad version. There are often times I’ve got just one hand free and it’s a great time to catch up on some reading. But still, my preferred way to read in Instapaper is on the couch with the Retina iPad mini.

  • Drafts: If you consider yourself an “iPad-toting power user” in any level at all, then you probably want a quick-capture text app. I’ve gravitated towards Scratch on my iPhone mostly because I like the design, but I use Drafts on the iPad.

    There are a lot of articles I read in Instapaper which I want to link to on shawnblanc.net. For those, I have a cool URL-scheme workflow thing that helps me get links and text from Instapaper to Poster with Drafts as the mediator.

  • Diet Coda: The iPad has a few apps that just kind of blow your mind when you realize just how powerful and awesome they are, apps that are textbook examples of why the iPad is thriving as a personal computer. And Diet Coda is such an app.

    With Diet Coda I connect to my site, navigate to the file I want, edit that file, and then save my changes to the server. I don’t have to juggle both a remote and local version of the file — I just open it, edit it, and save it. This is how Coda 1 worked, it’s how Coda 2 works, and it’s how Diet Coda works. It makes working in Diet Coda feel comfortable and secure.

  • Pinbook / Pushpin / Pinner: There are a lot of good Pinboard apps out there right now. Pinbook was my favorite for a while, but it’s in desperate need of a good update. Pinner and Pinbook are also quite nice. The jury is still out on this one, but needless to say, there are quite a few nice options for anyone in want of a good iOS Pinboard client.

  • TextExpander Touch: Though it’s not really an app that I launch, many of the apps I use support TextExpander snippets.

  • Dropbox: This app/service could go without saying, but yet, at the same time, it’s worth mentioning because Dropbox is such a critical back-end component to so many of the apps I use. I use Dropbox to sync my 1Password database between my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use it to keep all my “Currently Writing” articles available to me on all my devices. I use it sync Day One, and my TextExpander snippets. Moreover, since all my current projects have folders in Dropbox on my Mac, I can access those files at any time via the Dropbox app on my iPhone.

  • Calendars 5: This is, in my opinion, the best calendar app for the iPad. It’s very powerful but also simple.

  • Reeder: My favorite RSS reader, though, I don’t go nuts over RSS like I used to. I usually will comb through my folder of favorite feeds about once or twice per day and that’s it. I already am finding so much interesting things to read on Twitter that I don’t often comb through RSS hunting for nuggets.

Let’s talk (a little bit more) about iPad writing apps

Hands down, the main thing I lean on my iPad for when it comes to work, is writing. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the iPad truly is an excellent writing device. You can couple it with any bluetooth keyboard (and I do), but you don’t have to. I know several people who love to type using the on-screen keyboard.

For my professional work writing text that gets published on the Web, the iPad is awesome. But I think the iPad is an even better device for writing prose sans hyperlinks. I have used many writing apps on my iPad over the years (the original built-in notes app with Marker Felt and all, to Pages, to iA Writer, Byword, Writing Kit, Editorial, and more). The best each have their own bit of charm.

  • Simplenote: Speaking of writing, for me, hands down the most important “workflow thing” is to have text in sync between my iPhone, my iPad, and my Mac. There are a lot of apps which do this well, but for my needs, Simplenote is the best.

    As I wrote in my iPhone app playlist, when it comes to my writing workflow, I’ve basically got two buckets for all my text. First there is my bucket of ideas, lists, thoughts, and all sorts of other miscellany. And second is my bucket of current articles I’m working on. The former is what I use Simplenote for; the latter is a Dropbox folder filled with markdown files.

    My thoughts on Simplenote always start along the lines of how it’s the app I’d chose if I had to pick just one app only for use on all my iOS devices. It’s not that Simplenote, as an app in and of itself, is the best app on my iPhone or iPad. But there are a few things Simplenote does really well which make it indispensable for me.

    Simplenote has amazing and fast search. Searching for a note searches both the note’s title and the contents within. Then, tapping on a search result from the list takes you the search results within that note where you can the see all instances of that term within the note’s contents. Because I just toss all sorts of ideas and other bits of miscellaneous information into Simplenote, being able to quickly and efficiently search all my notes is vital. That, and its ability to sort notes based on their modification date (which means all the notes I’m dealing with right now are floating at the top of my list), makes it very easy to handle hundreds and hundreds of notes with very little mental overhead on my part.

  • Editorial: The app that changed everything for me when it comes to long-form writing on my iPad. I used to use Writing Kit, and it was great. But Editorial has taken things to a whole new level. If you just write words and don’t do a lot of writing for the web, you may not geek out over Editorial like myself and so many others have been. What I love about Editorial is its ability to define and install custom scripts and workflows (making it easy to insert links, find apps in the app store, etc…), as well as its built-in browser. Editorial has a very nice and clean design, and it is easy to use. Since the vast majority of the writing I do is for the Web, and I write exclusively in Markdown, Editorial makes all of the little things I need from a text editor easier and more efficient.

  • Aside about Writer Pro: iA Writer was one of (if not the) original apps in the minimalistic-Markdown-writing-apps-that-sync-with-Dropbox category. The predecessor to iA Writer, Writer Pro, is an impressive app. While there are things about the iPad version that are deal breakers for me — primarily its lack of Dropbox syncing and its lack of auto markdown completion and markdown syntax highlighting — I do like the workflow paradigm built into the app.

    For my work writing for the Web, Writer Pro is not the ideal tool because even if it did have the aforementioned features it will never include all scripts, workflows, and built-in browser of Editorial. However, for other a certain big project I am working on (like maybe another book) which does not require a lot of inline hyperlinks and other HTML-y stuff, Writer Pro could prove to be a brilliant app. Basically, the app itself could serve as the top-level folder for the book with each workflow state serving as the different “folders” for each chapter. I haven’t yet moved my current work into Writer Pro, but I think it could work quite well in this way.

  • Byword: Byword is the best Markdown writing app on the iPhone, and the iPad version is splendid as well. There is a lot to like about Byword — it’s fast, it has excellent search, it’s gorgeous, it’s powerful.

  • Poster: This is the app I use to post links and articles to shawnblanc.net. Alas it’s no longer available for sale because the developer, Tom Witkin, now works for WordPress. Fortunately for those who already have Poster, it is still being updated.

  • Editorially: Editorially is a web app, not a native app. And technically it is still in beta. But Editorially has proven to be an invaluable tool for the collaborative and group work we are doing at The Sweet Setup. We are using it to get a lot of work done without losing our minds. I can’t imagine what our workflow would look like without it.

And what about play?

  • Marvel Unlimited: I’m not nearly the comic nerd I was in my early teenage years, but I do still enjoy reading comics some evenings. I have a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, which, if you’re not familiar with the app, is a bit like Netflix for Marvel comic books. There are a lot of comics available through the app, and you can read any of them you like. There are a few drawbacks to the Marvel Unlimited app such as a pretty horrible process for reading more than one comic in a row (after each issue you have to exit back to your library, select the next comic, then chose to read it); no ability to save a whole story arc into your library (you have to save each comic issue one at a time); and the fact that most issues don’t show up in the app until they are about one year old. However, the good (the huge selection) far outweighs the bad. For someone who enjoys comics enough to read a dozen issues or more in a month, but isn’t serious that it’s important to own every issue, then Marvel Unlimited is a great thing.

  • Kingdom Rush: There are a few games I’ve played on the iPad that I’ve really enjoyed. But none so much as Kingdom Rush and Kingdom Rush Frontiers.

  • Loom: After Everpix shut down I switched to Loom at Bradley Chamber’s recommendation. There are a lot of things I like about Loom (such as its design and auto uploading of images from my Mac) and it’s still better than Photo Stream when it comes to don’t-make-me-think-about-it photo syncing from all my devices to all my devices.

  • Paprika: I’ve recently migrated all my recipes out of Simplenote and into Paprika. I don’t have a lot of recipes, but the ones I do have are delicious and it makes a lot more sense to keep them in a nice recipe app. Paprika is great, and having a 3-app suite across the Mac, iPhone, and iPad has proven to be quite helpful. Over on The Sweet Setup we tested quite a few recipe apps and found Paprika to be the best.

* * *

Earlier this year I began taking monthly screenshots of my iPhone and iPad Home screens so I could track, over time, how my usage of apps evolved and changed.

This is what my iPad’s Home screen looked like on May 1, 2013:

Shawn Blanc iPad home screen, March 2013

And this is what my iPad Home screen looks like today, Dec 23, 2013:

Shawn Blanc iPad home screen, December 2013

Most obviously, there is the visual change iOS 7 brought, and the new wallpaper I’m sporting. In terms of apps, my general types of apps has not changed, but a few of the apps themselves have. Most notably the replacement of iCal with Calendars 5, Writing Kit with Editorial, and the new Reeder with the native Feed Wrangler app.

Doing “work” from the iPad

As savvy readers of this site will know, I am an advocate for using the iPad to get work done. And often I prefer it to my laptop, especially when traveling. But, that is not to say I force the iPad into a workflow or use-case scenario that makes no sense just to “prove the iPad can be used for work”.

I enjoy the simplicity of the iPad, the change of pace its different apps bring, and, yes, sometimes I do enjoy the challenge of seeing what I can accomplish with it even when it’d be easier to just take my laptop. Because in a day and age where things are always speeding up and up and up, it’s nice to use a device that inherently causes me to slow down a bit.

First Thoughts on Writer Pro for iOS

The iPad makes for a fantastic writing device.

A cup of hot coffee, my bluetooth keyboard, and my iPad makes for one of my favorite ways to write. The one-app-at-a-time mentality along with the relatively difficult way to switch between apps (when compared to the Mac’s CMD+Tab) make iOS a pretty good “anti-distraction writing enviroment”.

Moreover, there are some truly exceptional writing apps for the iPad.

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of writing and note-taking apps. The ones that have stood out to me the most?

  • Simplenote (which I don’t really use for long-form writing, but I do use often because I have lots and lots and lots of notes in there).
  • iA Writer: For whatever reason, I never got into iA Writer all that much (neither on the iPad, iPhone, or Mac). Mostly because, as silly as this may sound, it didn’t have a “night theme”.
  • Byword: What I use on the Mac for all long-form writing.
  • Writing Kit: I used this app for quite a while because of its built-in web browser and several other nifty features.
  • Editorial: the iPad markdown writing app that changed the world.

Now, I am, of course, writing this text in Writer Pro on the iPad. It just came out a few hours ago and so naturally I can’t say too much about it yet. But iA Writer has a well-deserved fantastic reputation, and this new version of the app — Writer Pro — promises to take things to the next level. And, clearly, it does.

Is Writer Pro a significant upgrade from iA Writer? Absolutely.

Writer Pro has all the simplicity and charm of its predecessor but now applied to the whole workflow of writing process — from idea to done.

What’s special about Writer Pro is its obsessive focus is on the writing process. There are four “sections” your documents can be slotted in to: Notes, Writing, Editing, Reading. Each section has its own typeface and cursor color. The “Writing” section is, more or less, what the whole iA Writer app used to be.

This is an organization structure I could get behind. I follow this concept loosely already by keeping all of my notes and ideas in Simplenote and all of my “currently writing” articles in Dropbox (where I use Byword on the Mac and Editorial on the iPad). No other app that I know of has this sort of persnickety focus and structure.

So, after poking around and doing some typing, do I find Writer Pro awesome enough to pull me away from my current apps? It’s early to say, but I don’t think so…

I have three quibbles:

  • Unfortunately, Writer Pro on iOS has no auto-markdown completion, nor markdown syntax highlighting.

  • Secondly, there is no document storage option like iA Writer had (in iA Writer on iOS you could chose iCloud or Dropbox for document syncing). Writer Pro syncs with iCloud or nothing. Which means your documents are sandboxed into the app. And there is no export option to get out all the documents at once. (You can email individual documents out of the app.)

    And, from what I can tell, if you use iCloud document syncing for both iA Writer and Writer Pro, the two apps do not have access to one another’s files. But, since Writer Pro on the Mac can access documents you have in Dropbox, if wanted to use Writer Pro on your Mac you could keep it in sync with iOS apps that have access to Dropbox (such as Byword, Editorial, etc.).

  • Third, when writing in Writer Pro with a Bluetooth keyboard (as I am now) the custom keyboard row does not persist at the bottom of the screen. And so to get access to the custom Editing and Syntax highlighting buttons you have to bring up the entire soft keyboard, tap your options, and then dismiss the soft keyboard.

    Update: Anton Sotkov points out that the keyboard shortcuts in the Mac app work on iOS as well.

    Update 2: The Writer Pro team told me via Twitter that many of these issues will be gone in future updates. I understand that you’ve got to draw the “1.0 line” somewhere, and I have a lot of appreciate for opinionated software like iA Writer and Writer Pro.

Is Writer Pro an impressive, beautiful, and useful piece of software? Absolutely. Is it going to find a place in my iPad writing workflow? I don’t think so.

My iPhone App Playlist

The iPhone changed everything. It redefined what “delight” in software means. It pushed the needle of mobile and touch computing far forward. It opened up a massive ecosystem of apps and services and has been a key player in the boon of social networks.

I’ve had an iPhone within arms reach since 2007 — it is one of the most important gadget I own (if not the most important). As the software and hardware have evolved over the years, here’s a look at what apps have settled in as the ones I use every day to get things done and communicate with other people.

Let’s start with the apps I use on a regular basis for work and for play, these are my Mission-Critical Apps

  • Simplenote: My thoughts on Simplenote always start along the lines of how it’s the app I’d chose if I had to pick just one app only for use on all my iOS devices. For me, hands down the most important “workflow thing” is to have text in sync between my iPhone, my iPad, and my Mac. There are a lot of apps which do this well, but for my needs, Simplenote is the best.

    When it comes to my writing workflow, I’ve basically got two buckets for all my text. First there is my bucket of ideas, lists, thoughts, and all sorts of other miscellany. And second is my bucket of current articles I’m working on. The former is what I use Simplenote for; the latter is a Dropbox folder filled with markdown files.

    What makes Simplenote my favorite here is its search functionality. Simplenote has amazing and fast search. Searching for a note searches both the note’s title and the contents within. Then, tapping on a search result from the list takes you the search results within that note where you can the see all instances of that term within the note’s contents.

  • Byword: Byword is my next favorite text app on the iPhone, and it’s the app I use for my second aforementioned bucket. For any article I’m currently working on, if I want to edit, add to, or create a new one from my iPhone, then I use Byword to access my “Currently Writing” folder.

    Byword has some awesome features that I wish Simplenote did — namely, fantastic Markdown support and a dark theme. Byword’s search functionality is also fantastic — better than any other app I know of, save Simplenote. Byword would make a great app for all my “little notes”, but it doesn’t (yet?) show search results for terms within the note’s content (though it does search a note’s content when searching at the list level).

    For more about why Byword is awesome, read our review at The Sweet Setup (written by Federico Viticci) where we crown it the best Markdown Writing App on the iPhone.

  • Fantastical: I’ve spent hours and hours testing, trying, and using many different great calendar apps for the iPhone. And Fantastical is the best. Natural language entry for creating new events is the easiest way to go about it, and Fantastical has the best natural language engine. Not to mention Fantastical has several excellent design layouts (day ticker with list view; month view with list view; and landscape mode’s week view) as well as reminders support. The only thing I dislike about Fantastical is that it lacks an iPad version.

  • OmniFocus: I’ve been using the OmniFocus suite of apps (Mac, iPhone, and iPad) for over three years now. Once a year, usually around the New Year, I like to step back and consider if the tools I’m using are still the best tools for me. If the answer is “yes” then I leave things alone and get back to work. But if the answer is “no” then I try to consider if its my use of the tools or the tools themselves that are flawed.

    Lately, I have been wondering if OmniFocus is now too complex for me now that I’ve somewhat settled into a grove with my work-from-home schedule. But as I’ve considered other alternatives, I just can’t conceive of quitting OmniFocus because it’s a task management system that I trust — I know that if and when an important task becomes due, OmniFocus will show it to me.

    This is something that I will be revisiting in the near future but for now, OmniFocus remains one of my “mission critical” apps (on all devices).

  • Day One: This is certainly the best journaling app out there. I keep Day One on my iPhone’s Home screen and write in it often. I have no rules for how I use Day One, nor for how often I use it. My entries are all sorts of things, including photos, one-line milestone mentions about my kids, deep thoughts, brain dumps of ideas, and more.

  • Tweetbot: My go-to Twitter app, and arguably the best Twitter client on the iPhone. I’m a huge fan of the big update Tweetbot received a while back and look forward to that update influencing the iPad and Mac versions as well.

  • 1Password: I sometimes like to refer to my iPhone as “Command Central”. It’s great for a lot of things, and then okay at a lot of other things. And while it may not be the best device for some tasks, I can still do pretty much anything from the iPhone if and when I need to. And since I have my iPhone within arm’s reach pretty much 24/7, it makes sense that I should be able to access critical information when I need to. And that’s why 1Password is so great.

    1Password is far more than just a password manager. If that’s all it was then the updates to iCloud keychain sync would have negated the need for 1Password. However, 1Password also stores secure notes, bank information, and pretty much anything else I can think of.

  • Rdio: This is the app I use for listening to music on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. The $10/month plan is well worth it for getting unlimited access to pretty much any album I want.

  • Instapaper: It seems everyone is using Pocket these days, but Instapaper continues to be my go-to Read Later app. I love the design and I’ve got an IFTTT recipe that takes all of my Instapaper “liked” articles and drops them into Pinboard for me. Since having kids I now use the iPhone version almost as much as the iPad version. There are often times I’ve got just one hand free and it’s a great time to catch up on some reading.

  • Poster: This is the app I use to post links to shawnblanc.net; alas it’s no longer available for sale because the developer, Tom Witkin, now works for WordPress. Fortunately for those who already have Poster, it is still being updated.

  • Scratch: If you consider yourself an “iPhone toting power user” in any level at all, then you probably want a quick-capture text app such as Scratch or Drafts. I’ve gravitated towards Scratch on my iPhone mostly because I like the design, but that in no way means Drafts is an inferior app. In fact, Drafts does a lot of awesome things that Scratch does not. I use Drafts on my iPad, and have a cool URL-scheme workflow thing that helps me get links and text from Instapaper to Poster (with Drafts as the mediator).

  • TextExpander Touch: Though it’s not really an app that I launch, many of the apps I use support TextExpander snippets.

  • Dropbox: This app/service could go without saying, but yet, at the same time, it’s worth mentioning because Dropbox is such a critical back-end component to so many of the apps I use. I use Dropbox to sync my 1Password database between my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use it to keep all my “Currently Writing” articles available to me on all my devices. I use it sync Day One, and my TextExpander snippets. Moreover, since all my current projects have folders in Dropbox on my Mac, I can access those files at any time via the Dropbox app on my iPhone.

And now let’s talk briefly about the apps I don’t use all the time, but which I use often enough and are awesome

  • Check the Weather: This is my favorite weather app. It’s very easy to read, and I like that it has a radar and Dark Sky’s short-term precipitation forecast.

  • Google Maps: It’s just more reliable than Apple’s maps, and it’s far better at finding the place I’m searching for.

  • PCalc: PCalc is one fine calculator app. I use it not because I’m an engineer nor am I an amateur calculator nerd, but because it looks great and it’s fast.

  • Reeder: My favorite RSS reader, though I mostly use the iPad version.

  • VSCO Cam: My go-to app for editing photos I take with my iPhone.

  • Riposte: The best iPhone client for App.net.

  • Mileage Log: For years I used Trip Cubby to track all my business, medical, and charity-related driving. That app was recently retired and out of the ashes arose Mileage Log. I haven’t used any other mileage tracker so I don’t know how this one compares to the others, but I do know that Mileage Log is awesome and it complies with the IRS’s regulations for tracking miles driven for tax purposes. I’ve used the app to log 62 trips so far this year for more than 1,300 miles.

  • QuickShot: I use this to take photos of business-related receipts for tax purposes. QuickShot names them with the date and uploads them to Dropbox. Then I have a Hazel rule that moves those images to my receipts folder and I throw away the physical receipt. It’s faster than scanning them all in at once (especially since receipts are good at getting all wrinkled up in my pocket), and it’s a great way to keep track of receipts when traveling.

  • Loom: After Everpix shut down I switched to Loom at Bradley Chamber’s recommendation. There are a lot of things I like about Loom (such as its design and auto uploading of images from my Mac) and it’s still better than Photo Stream when it comes to don’t-make-me-think-about-it photo syncing from all my devices to all my devices.

  • Paprika: I’ve recently migrated all my recipes out of Simplenote and into Paprika. I don’t have a lot of recipes, but the ones I do have are so very delicious and it makes a lot more sense to keep them in a nice recipe app. Paprika is truly quite great, and having a 3-app suite across the Mac, iPhone, and iPad has proven to be quite helpful. Over on The Sweet Setup we tested quite a few recipe apps and found Paprika to be the best.

  • Checkmark: I don’t use location-based reminders on a regular basis, but when I do then Checkmark is the best there is. It’s fast and reliable.

  • Delivery Status: This is a swell app that keeps track of packages and deliveries I’m expecting.

  • Dropvox: This app is extremely dated, but it still works and I still use it to record Shawn Today episodes whenever I’m away from my Mac. And, so far as I know, there are no other apps which take a voice recording and pipe it to Dropbox.

  • Pinbook / Pushpin / Pinswift / Pinner: There are a lot of good Pinboard apps out there right now. Pinbook was my favorite for a while, but it’s in desperate need of a good update. Pinswift is new and pretty great. Pinner is also nice. The jury is still out on this one, but needless to say, there are quite a few nice options for anyone in want of a good iOS Pinboard client.

* * *

About 9 months ago I began taking monthly screenshots of my iPhone’s Home screen so I could track, over time, how my usage of apps evolved and changed.

This is what my Home screen looked like on March 1, 2013 compared to how it looks today:

Shawn Blanc iPhone Home screen comparisons

As you can see, aside from the visual change iOS 7 has brought, not much has changed for me in terms of my most-used and most-important apps.

I find this awesome and yet also a bit curious. It’s awesome because I feel comfortable with my current arsenal of 3rd-party apps; they do pretty much everything I could ask of them, I know what they’re capable of, how they work, and how to use them efficiently. However, on the other side of the coin, there are some apps I use that don’t have any other top-shelf alternatives which interest me.

Is that a bad thing? No, I don’t think so. Naturally, I want 1Password to stay the undisputed champion of password management apps because not only am I familiar and happy with it but also because I’ve invested a lot of money on it. However, on the other hand, competition breeds innovation. When an app sits as king of the hill, with little to no competition, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the best version it could be or if it’s just the best when compared to everyone else.

But let’s not end on a sad note. To wrap up, let me say that I find my iPhone as interesting, curious, and wonderful today as I did in 2007. My kids will grow up thinking iPhones and iPads are normal, and who knows what this stuff will look like when they’re my age. But I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to be right here, living and working in the midst of what is undoubtedly one the most significant evolutions of personal computing since the 1980s.

But now I’m crossing into iPad stuff. And that’s a post for next week…

Recently, on ‘Shawn Today’

This past week, on my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, I spent 5 episodes on the subject of working from home.

I’ve been working for myself out of my home office for just about 3 years, and, as anyone else who works from home knows, it’s not all coffee and pajamas. Yes, there are many awesome advantages, but there are also many unique challenges and distractions.

While there’s no way I could fully exhaust the topic, I did want to hit a few of the areas that are hot topics for me personally right now. In the weeks ahead, I plan to continue this conversation on the podcast and here in written form as well.

Here’s a quick overview of this week’s episodes:

  • On Monday’s show, I talked about how taking time off is hard and shared some thoughts on working from anywhere and working all the time, and how it’s so easy to do (especially when you work for yourself).

  • On Tuesday’s show, I talked about “The Transition”. That time after work where you decompress from the work day and leave behind what was unfinished, and let it wait for the next work day. I shared some of my own pros and cons of working from home as it relates to having an office just one flight of stairs away, and thus the lack of a transition before and after the work day.

  • On Wednesday I shared many pros and cons to working from home as submitted to me by folks via Twitter in response to this question.

  • Thursday was about how to deal with the being alone (as in, not physically around other coworkers for face-to-face conversation and interaction) in our victories and defeats. When you’re working on a project alone how do you best celebrate the victory of shipping something and how do you best minimize the criticism that comes with a failure, learning from it rather than taking it to heart?

  • And on Friday, I shared some thoughts on defining our work by schedule rather than to-do lists.

A huge thanks to those of you who wrote something of your own, sent in emails, and/or shared your thoughts via Twitter after various episodes. These shows turned out better because of your feedback.

If you’re a current member to the site and haven’t already listened to this week’s podcast episodes, you’ll find them here (as always).

And, of course, if you’re not a member, you can sign up here. It’s $4/month and you’ll get access to the members-only podcast feed and the archive page with links to every single one of the 450 episodes recorded to date (including this week’s series on working from home).

Three Weeks With Two iPads

Gosh. Well, I’ve been using both an iPad mini and an iPad Air, side-by-side, for the past three weeks. The goal of my parallel usage is to see if the mini can be used for “real work” (it can), and ultimately to see if I’ll prefer the smaller form factor of the mini or the larger screen of the Air (I don’t know yet).

So far, when around the house, I’ve been grabbing the iPad mini more frequently. Part of this may still be the novelty of the smaller iPad. This is the first iPad mini I’ve used for an extended period of time and even though the iPad Air is crazy light and still nice and easy to use, the iPad mini is more “fun” to use around the house.

These uses mostly include:

  • Scrubbing my to-do list in the morning (in OmniFocus)
  • Streaming Pandora or Rdio to our living room’s Airplay speaker
  • Reading Instapaper and sometimes posting links to shawnblanc.net
  • Making edits and reviewing documents in Editorially
  • Doing email
  • Twittering

On the go, I do writing in Editorial. And, actually, I’ve felt no remorse when I’ve set up the iPad mini with my keyboard to do writing from it or to log into my website via Diet Coda and make edits to code when needed.

So far, the biggest advantage the iPad Air has over the iPad mini is when it comes to reading comics. I’m not an avid comic book reader, but I do subscribe to the Marvel Unlimited app and read a few comics during the week. Unfortunately, the Marvel Unlimited app is not very good. And one of the biggest things that makes it difficult to read on the iPad mini is that you have to view full page spreads (you cannot zoom in and read pane by pane). And so the iPad Air really does make a superior reading experience for that because the text is larger and more comfortable to read.

Typing on the on-screen keyboard of the iPad Air is obviously much more manageable. I don’t do much typing, but when I do it’s usually via the landscape keyboard on the Air or else the portrait keyboard on the mini. Those are the two more comfortable options for each device. Long-form writing with the on-screen keyboard of the mini would stink. But, since I almost always use a bluetooth keyboard when doing long-form typing, it’s virtually a non-issue for me as to which device’s onscreen keyboard is better.

Let’s answer some questions

I asked you guys on Twitter if you had any questions about the two iPads, and I’ve done my best to answer them below. Some questions I can’t give a clear and dry answer to because there are so many variables about how you, dear reader, use your iPad, what your budget is, etc. But I will at least try to put my thoughts down to maybe give you some context that may help you make the best decision.

  • What are your general thoughts on “content creation versus consumption” between the two iPads? This sort of is the quintessential question, and I think it boils down to this:

    The iPad mini and the iPad Air are both equally capable and usable devices; pick the one you think you want and you will acclimate to it just fine.

  • Both iPads are sitting there, which one do you grab? The iPad mini. But I’m not yet sure if that’s telling of anything. I’ve had a full-sized iPad since the original in 2010 and this is the first iPad mini I’ve used at length. The smaller size is still a novelty to me, and I’m really enjoying it.

  • Which gets warmer during use? Both of my iPads get warm during use, but the iPad mini gets more warm than the Air. Neither get uncomfortable, but it is noticeable.

  • Do you notice the differences in display quality (PPI) in day-to-day use? Surprisingly, no. I was quite excited about the iPad mini’s 326 PPI display — it is the most dense pixel display Apple makes, and up until now it’s a pixel density that has only been in the iPhone. But now it’s in a 7.9-inch iPad. However, even when using both iPads side by side — with the mini showing my Twitter replies and the Air running Editorial as I type in the Questions and my answers — I cannot see a noticeable difference in the clarity and sharpness of the screens.

  • Have you noticed the difference in color gamut? Yes, but it’s hardly noticeable. and it’s only with some shades of red — the iPad Air displays them a bit more like firetruck and the iPad mini a bit more muted. But really, looking at the two screens side by side and comparing them using the same apps and images and Home screens, everything looks virtually identical.

    My pal, Matthew Panzarino, traded his iPad mini in because of the color issues. Maybe I got lucky, or maybe he got unlucky, but I’ve had two Retina iPad minis so far (the wi-fi version at first that I returned to get an LTE version) and the screen colors have been fine on both of them.

  • How do they perform in note taking? If you’re a student and you plan to take your iPad to the classroom, or if you take your iPad to meetings, the biggest question to ask is if you plan to use an external bluetooth keyboard or not. If you plan to go sans-keyboard, then I would go for the iPad Air without hesitation. Its larger screen set in landscape mode makes for a much better typing surface than the mini’s on-screen keyboard. If, however, you plan to bring a bluetooth keyboard along as well, then it’s a toss-up. So keep reading some of the other questions below.

  • I have an iPad (1 / 2 / 3 / 4), should I upgrade? If you can afford it, and if you use your iPad a lot, then yes. This year is a big leap for the iPads and even going from an iPad 4 to an iPad Air is a nice upgrade. You’ll notice improvements in both performance and size. I upgraded from an iPad 3 and it was a huge boost.

  • Which iPad should I upgrade to? I got both iPads in the 32GB with LTE flavor. I highly recommend at least that combo and to get more storage if you think you’ll need it. As for if you should get the Air or the mini, well isn’t that what all these questions are about? In short, though, my advice this year still stands as it has been since the mini first came out: if you’re just not sure which one to get, get the mini.

  • Are there any specific tasks that one iPad is more suited for? Yes.

    A few things the iPad Air’s larger screen is arguably better for: Writing and typing, because of its somewhat larger font size and bigger on-screen keyboard; reading comics, PDFs, and other “font locked” documents/periodicals; watching video; editing photos and videos; and taking hand-written notes, drawing, or painting (with apps like 53′s Paper). Is the iPad Air significantly better for these things? I don’t think so. And really, it just boils down to a matter of opinion and personal preference.

    A few things the iPad mini is arguably better for: reading books, RSS feeds, twitter feeds, Instapaper queue, etc. In any app where you can adjust the font size, if the iPad mini’s display is a bit too dense for you, you can adjust the font size to be a bit bigger; and anything that would normally be done while holding the iPad.

    Though the Air is great in size and weight, it’s not as light as the mini and the latter truly is easier to hold in one hand while standing, sitting, leaning back, etc.

  • In what contexts is the iPad mini “less of an iPad” than the Air? So, when does the screen size play the biggest role? Drawing, painting, typing, photo/video editing, watching movies. These are tasks where having a bigger screen really is nicer.

  • Are there any apps that work better on a mini? Any app that you use while holding the mini (specifically reading / browsing).

  • Is it difficult to use two iPads at the same time? Actually, no, not at all. Since everything I use on my iPad syncs to the web, the two are literally in perfect sync with one another.

  • How does each iPad fare as a laptop replacement? They both fare the same.

  • What use cases make me reach for one iPad over the other? When I’m doing writing, I reach for the iPad Air. For everything else (scrubbing OmniFocus, reading Twitter, RSS, quick email checking, Instapaper, etc.) I grab the mini.

  • When you’re using the Air, what do you miss about the Mini? If I’m typing with my keyboard, I miss nothing. If I’m reading Instapaper or surfing the Web, I miss the mini’s smaller size.

  • Which iPad do you tend to use when in the house? The mini. Since, when I’m in the house, and am writing, I am most likely at my desk using my MacBook Air. And thus, any other task

  • Which iPad do you tend to grab when heading out on the road? The iPad Air. Since, as I’ll mention below, the iPad Air still feels like my “real” iPad.

  • Which apps do you most use on the Air? Editorial, Instapaper, Drafts, Poster.

  • Which apps do you most use on the Mini? Tweetbot, OmniFocus, Instapaper, Safari, Pandora, Rdio.

* * *

So far, the iPad mini seems to be becoming my preferred iPad, but the iPad Air feels like my “real” iPad. Let me try to explain. For my needs, there’s nothing about the iPad mini that makes it less capable in any significant way — I can read and write just fine from the mini. However, the iPad mini has a “feeling” of being less capable simply because of its size.

Is the iPad Air a bit better suited for some tasks such as writing? I think so. For me, the larger screen size allows me to have a bigger font size and see more words on the screen at the same time (something nice for my aging eyes). And for times when I’m doing typing with the on-screen keyboard, the iPad Air’s larger screen is much nicer for hitting the keys. But for almost every other task (except for watching movies and reading comics), I find the mini to be just as good if not even better suited.

After 3 weeks, I’m actually leaning slightly more towards the mini if I had to pick one. Though I do work a lot from my iPad, the iPad is not my main work machine. I still spend most of my time at my desk working from my MacBook Air. And so, for the things I do use an iPad for, the iPad mini is better for about 80-percent of them and “good enough” for the other 20-percent. I plan to keep using both iPads, side by side, for at least another month or two, so I’ll check back in again soon.

As I said in response to the first question above, the iPad mini and the iPad Air are both equally capable and usable devices. Pick the one you think you want and you will acclimate to it just fine.

The Olympus E-PL5 Mirrorless Camera: My One-Year Review

It’s been a year since the Olympus E-PL5 showed up at my door, and I want to give a report.

The Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5

The E-PL5 is the first nice camera I’ve ever owned. A year later, as I look back at how often I’ve used the camera, the pictures I’ve taken with it, and what my opinion is of the camera itself, the short answer is that I still use it regularly and often, and I’m still very happy with it.

It was the fall of 2012 that I began researching mirrorless cameras to find a setup I could easily take with me anywhere I went, and which cost under $1,000 (for the body and a nice prime lens). I wanted the camera to have an Auto mode so I could just point and shoot if I needed to (I still am a beginning photographer, and don’t always know which manual adjustments to make to get the exposure right). I also wanted an Auto mode so I could hand the camera over to a family member to let them point and shoot with. But it also needed to have good manual modes so I could learn and grow into the manual controls as I learned more about the technical details of photography.

The setup I went with was the then-new Olympus E-PL5 and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

As I mentioned in my official review, it was the iPhone that actually led me to getting a better camera. I was taking more and more and more pictures, but wasn’t doing much with them other than keeping them on my iPhone. A year later, I still couldn’t be happier about my decision to get a nice camera and I am still very happy with the camera I chose.

I’ve had and used the E-PL5 through Thanksgiving 2012, Christmas, my son, Noah’s, first birthday, a few trips to Colorado, a trip to San Francisco, a camping trip, a trip to New York, the birth of my second son, Giovanni, and countless other weekend and weekday excursions.

Last year we bought several new photo frames to put around the house. And every couple of months I order a few new 8×10 photos printed from Shutterfly and we swap out all the pictures in the house. It’s inexpensive1 and it’s so wonderful to have high-quality photos of our kids and family.2

Something we did last year, and which we’ll do again this Christmas, was get a few of Apple’s iPhoto photo books. Photo books make great Christmas presents to parents and grandparents. Last year’s book was half photos from my iPhone covering January through October, and then half photos from my E-PL5 covering November and early December. This year the photo book will probably be 90-percent (or more) E-PL5 photos.

I still consider the E-PL5 to be one of the best-kept secrets in the mirrorless camera landscape. For the body only, it’s very reasonably priced. And it’s fast, has great battery life, works with all the micro-four thirds lenses, is well built, has 4-axis in-body image stabilization, and has the same sensor found inside the critically acclaimed Olympus E-M5. It’s a beast and it won’t break the bank.

On Twitter I was asked if a better camera in this space has come along. For the same price as the E-PL5, no, I don’t think so.

Of course, since I got my E-PL5 a year ago, the mirrorless camera landscape has improved quite a bit. There’s now the Fuji x100s and X-E2, the Olympus E-P5, and the new Olympus E-M1 (to name a few). These are all really great, but they’re also all more expensive than the E-PL5.

You can get the E-PL5 body and a very nice prime lens for about $800-$900 (depending on the lens you pick). The E-P5 is $900 for the body alone; the Fuji x100s is $1,300 and comes with a great lens (that cannot be swapped out), but it is not a beginner’s camera.

In my opinion, someone looking to get a great camera and a great lens (where by “great lens” I mean “a prime lens” — not the kit zoom lens), can’t go wrong with the E-PL5. It’s compact, it’s easy enough to use that a beginner could pick it up and take decent shots with it (no comment about technique), and it has most of the same internal components (same sensor, similar IBIS) found in Olympus’ top-of-the line cameras, the E-M1 and the E-P5.

Here are answers to a few other questions I got from folks on Twitter:

  • What’s the best first lens? The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7. It’s one of the less expensive among the good prime lens selection; it’s a pancake lens, so it takes up very little space; it takes wonderful photographs; and the 20mm focal length (which is the 40mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) is in the sweet spot range for all manner of photos. So, if you don’t know which lens to get, get the Panasonic 20/1.7.

    Other great lenses include the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8, and the Olympus 17mm f/1.8. I’ve rented the 25/1.4 and the 45/1.8 and they are both fantastic.

  • What is your most-used lens? Just the one I have: the panasonic 20/1.7. It’s a fantastic lens for the price and size. My favorite lens of all the ones I have used is the Pany 25/1.4, but I like the size of the 20/1.7 pancake too much. And, since the 20mm and the 25mm are so close in focal length, it seems silly to keep them both.

  • Have you been tempted by any other cameras? Yes; the E-P5. It has all that’s awesome about the E-PL5, but in a nicer body with more manual controls (without giving up automatic modes), and with an even better sensor and IBIS. However, the E-P5 is several hundred dollars more expensive, and I honestly don’t know if that increase in price is worth it for me at my current skill and usage levels.

  • How do you travel with it? For outings, I use my DSPTCH strap. As for a case, I don’t have one yet because I haven’t yet found one I like (well, the Hard Graft camera bag looks gorgeous, but I’d rather buy a lens).

  • What do you wish was different? What annoys you about the camera? The same thing that I’m tempted by with the E-P5: I wish the E-PL5 had better manual dials. You can set it in Aperture or Shutter priority modes, but you have to use the menu dial to quickly change the aperture / exposure / shutter settings. This can be a bit awkward or inaccurate. But… It doesn’t bother me so much to dislike the camera, and like I mentioned above, I’m not sure it’s worth the cost for me to buy a more expensive camera right now. I’ll probably keep the E-PL5 for a few more years and invest my money in lenses instead of upgrading my camera body.

  • Has your frequency of use decreased since you first got the camera? Yes and no. I’m not forcing myself to take it out like I did when I first got it. But I still use it often around the house and at family events, trips, and other things. Since the first day of owning it I have always felt silly taking it out and using it. But, looking back, I wish I would get out with the camera more often.

  • What about ergonomics? The camera feels great. It’s very light, it has incredible build quality, and it’s very easy to hold with one hand. The flip-out view screen makes it easy to take photos at all sorts of angles.

  • Auto-focus and other settings? The E-PL5 with my Panasonic 20mm lens does hunt a fair bit in super low light, but in my understanding it’s no better or worse than most other cameras like this. When I was renting the Olympus 45/1.8 lens, the auto-focus was a bit quicker, but not significantly so.

    I mostly shoot in Aperture Priority mode, but when I’m having trouble I’ll switch to Auto and the camera does a great job at deciding what sorts of settings I want.

  • To what degree does the camera’s physical size impact when/where you use it. How often have you wished you had it but didn’t? The size of the camera is fantastic. It’s small enough to fit in my winter coat pocket or my small laptop bag without bothering me. It’s also light enough that when I’m wearing it with the shoulder strap I can have it on for hours and never consider its weight.

    There are often times I wish I had taken it somewhere but didn’t. This, however, has everything to do with me not being in the discipline of taking the camera and using it. It has almost nothing to do with the size of the camera.

  • What is the most important thing you’ve learned about photography since getting this camera? That I regret 100% of the shots I don’t take. Too cliche? Okay, fine. But it’s true. Like I said above regarding frequency of use, I want to get out with the camera more often.

  • What is your usage of the E-PL5 compared to your iPhone camera? I certainly use my iPhone more often than the E-PL5 just because of the fact that my iPhone is with me all the time. But I don’t often take “great photos” with my iPhone. Usually they are cool snapshots that I will then share on Instagram, email to friends and family, or put into Day One. And that’s exactly why I got the E-PL5. I didn’t want to all-out replace my iPhone, but I wanted something I could use to take much, much better photos when it mattered most.

  • What are your favorite pictures taken with the E-PL5? This one is probably my most favorite:

Anna and Noah reading

These are also favorites:

The B&B Cafe

Nohawk

You can see more of the photos I’ve taken on my Flickr page.

* * *

So. If you’re in the market for an awesome and pocketable camera, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, there are a lot of really great options. The bad news is, there are a lot of really great options. Good luck!


  1. 8×10 prints are normally 3.99 each, but Shutterfly seems to have sales all the time to get things for 40-percent off or more. I’ve also heard great things about WHCC’s pricing and quality, but haven’t yet used them myself.
  2. I’ve also been using the camera to take “fancy” hero images for use on this site and on The Sweet Setup.
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